Does influenza vaccination attenuate the severity of breakthrough infections? A narrative review and recommendations for further research

Vaccine. 2021 Jun 23;39(28):3678-3695. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2021.05.011. Epub 2021 Jun 2.


The effect of influenza vaccination on influenza severity remains uncertain. We reviewed the literature for evidence to inform the question of whether influenza illness is less severe among individuals who received influenza vaccination compared with individuals with influenza illness who were unvaccinated prior to their illnesses. We conducted a narrative review to identify published findings comparing severity of influenza outcomes by vaccination status among community-dwelling adults and children ≥ 6 months of age with laboratory-confirmed influenza illness. When at least four effect estimates of the same type (e.g., odds ratio) were available for a specific outcome and age category (children versus adults), data were pooled with meta-analysis to generate a summary effect estimate. We identified 38 published articles reporting ≥ 1 association between influenza vaccination status and one of 21 indicators of severity of influenza illness among individuals with laboratory-confirmed influenza. Study methodologies and effect estimates were highly heterogenous, with only five severity indicators meeting criteria for calculating a combined effect. Among eight studies, influenza vaccination was associated with 26% reduction in odds of ICU admission among adults with influenza-associated hospitalization (OR = 0.74, 95% CI 0.58, 0.93). Among five studies of adults with influenza-associated hospitalization, vaccinated patients had 31% reduced risk of death compared with unvaccinated patients (OR = 0.69, 95% CI 0.52, 0.92). Among four studies of children with influenza virus infection, vaccination was associated with an estimated 45% reduction in the odds of manifesting fever (OR = 0.55, 95% CI 0.42, 0.71). Vaccination was not significantly associated with receiving a clinical diagnosis of pneumonia among adults hospitalized with influenza (OR = 0.92, 95% CI 0.82, 1.04) or with risk of hospitalization following outpatient influenza illness among adults (OR = 0.60, 95% CI 0.28, 1.28). Overall, our findings support the hypothesis that influenza vaccination may attenuate the course of disease among individuals with breakthrough influenza virus infection.

Keywords: Influenza; Severity; Vaccination; Vaccine effectiveness.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Influenza Vaccines*
  • Influenza, Human* / prevention & control
  • Odds Ratio
  • Pneumonia*
  • Vaccination


  • Influenza Vaccines