It’s that time of year again . . . (no, not “The Holidays” quite yet) . . . It’s Flu Shot season! If you haven’t already, you will soon be seeing and hearing regular reminders and exhortations to go get your annual flu shot. If you’re wondering whether or not a flu shot is a good idea, please read on.
Before I continue, I just want to be clear that this article is not intended to substitute for competent medical advice, or to instruct any individual on what is right for them. It is meant only to provide information on some of the issues surrounding the flu shot that can affect your health for better or worse. Please consult with your doctor before making your decision.
Flu is an extremely common illness. By some estimates between 10 and 20% of Americans become sick with the flu every year. It is certainly no fun, causing fever, chills, cough, muscle aches and fatigue and lasting from about 5 days to 2 weeks or more. Furthermore, some people do die of complications associated with the flu every year. Getting a simple vaccination sounds like a good idea, but how dangerous is the flu really, how well does the vaccine actually work, and what are the possible adverse effects?
Why are we scared of the flu?
When I was growing up the flu was looked on mostly as a nuisance. It made you feel lousy and kept you out of school or work for a few days. I don’t remember anyone being afraid of it. In recent decades, however, the flu has taken on a more sinister aura. In 2003 and 2004 there was a lot of media reporting on the highly virulent Asian “bird flu” with photos of large numbers of people in surgical masks and suggestions that it might become a dangerous pandemic (spread throughout the world). This never happened.
The H1N1 “swine flu” of 2009 also got the media’s attention and did result in a pandemic, although it turned out to be a relatively mild strain and flu related deaths were actually below seasonal averages that year. By 2011, however, the CDC changed it’s recommendations for annual flu vaccinations for children and the elderly to everyone over the age of 6 months.
So how dangerous is the flu?
According to the CDC, the number of people who get the flu each year in the US ranges from about 10 million to about 45 million. Flu related deaths range from about 12,000 to 60,000 annually. This translates to death rates between about 0.05% to 0.2% of those infected. It is important to understand that it is extremely rare for anyone to die of the flu itself. Most flu related deaths actually occur due to secondary bacterial infections (mostly pneumonia).
We should remember, however, that there are also other potential complications, including bronchitis and pneumonia in older adults and otitis media (an infection of the middle ear) in children, and there are some extremely rare secondary conditions which can develop as well such as Reye’s syndrome and Guillain-Barre syndrome (which can also be caused by the vaccine). Risk of both infection and progression beyond the initial flu stage can be greatly reduced by maintaining a high state of health and exercising common sense preventive measures.
Who is most at risk?
Not everyone who gets the flu is at the same level of risk. Over 90% of flu related deaths occur in people over 65 years of age. However, of these, the vast majority have preexisting conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease or conditions which significantly compromise their immune function. Maintaining a high level of health as we age counts for a lot!
More recent evidence also suggests that children with certain pre-existing conditions that compromise their respiratory function, such as asthma, may also be at slightly higher risk.
How well does the vaccine work?
Flu vaccine efficacy varies from year to year. This is due to the fact that the flu virus mutates (changes) more frequently than any other virus. Each year’s vaccine must be formulated and manufactured before flu season starts and thus represents a prediction of what flu strain will be prevalent. In other words, it does not reliably contain the dominant strain for that year. Analysis of large numbers of studies suggests the vaccine has 0% to 60% effectiveness in preventing flu-like symptoms. This would suggest that the average effectiveness is well below 50%.
What are the potential side effects?
Sadly, vaccination has become a highly charged and politicized issue. Clearly, large scale vaccination campaigns have played an important role in reducing the burden of a number of serious infectious diseases such as polio and smallpox. It is just as true, however, that every potential medical treatment carries some level of risk. Part of practicing good medicine is to weight the benefits vs. the risks of any potential treatment and to educate patients so they can make informed decisions about their care.
What I’m going to do here is just list a few well established facts about possible harmful effects of the flu vaccine that should be weighed against potential benefits.
- Most versions of the flu vaccine contain mercury, a known neurotoxin which can cause the death of nerve cells in the central nervous system (brain) and disrupt immune and hormonal function. While the amount of mercury in a single flu shot is minute, mercury does accumulate in tissues and getting repeated flu shots over the years increases the risk of adverse effects from mercury.
- A number of versions of the flu vaccine also contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen (cancer causing agent), neurotoxin and immune toxin, as well as other potentially harmful compounds.
- All virus for flu vaccines are grown in eggs, so individuals with severe egg allergies may have a reaction, although severe reactions are rare.
- Common side effects after receiving the vaccine include soreness, redness, itching or swelling at the site of injection, fever and achiness.
- Some studies have shown that children who don’t receive the flu vaccine actually have better resistance to future flu strains than vaccinated children. This suggests that allowing the immune system to do its work and fight off the virus results in more generalized immunity to future flu strains. Gotta love mother nature.
- Infection with a specific strain of flu virus confers immunity to that strain that will likely last a life time. Immunity gained from any version of the flu vaccine is generally thought to last less than a year.
Are there good alternatives to the flu vaccine?
There is no naturopathic therapy that is a direct replacement for the flu vaccine (or any vaccine for that matter). Vaccines work in a very specific way. They contain prepared elements of an infectious organism that cause the immune system to recognize the actual infectious organism on future exposure. There are, however, natural therapies that we have used over the years that we believe help to reduce chances of becoming infected with the flu. There are also remedies which help people get over the flu more quickly should they become infected.
Because individual needs vary so much, the best thing to do is talk to your doctor before flu season starts to discuss a strategy that is appropriate for you and your family. Here are just a few therapies that we commonly use to help our patients both prevent the flu and treat it effectively if they do get it.
Vitamin D: has a strong immune boosting effect and there is a growing body of evidence that this vitamin reduces the incidence of flu like illnesses.
Muco coccinum: A homeopathic remedy that can be taken as a preventative for the flu. One small study showed 80% efficacy in preventing flu like symptoms.
The “Unda Numbers”: many of our patients are familiar with these remedies, and those with children know how effective they can be at limiting the severity and shortening the duration of acute infectious illnesses.
From year to year the effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies considerably and average efficacy is very probably well below 50%. Additionally, as with all medical treatments, flu vaccination does carry some risks. There is a time and place for its use, however, and if you wondering if it may be useful for you or a family member we suggest that you discuss the matter with a well informed health care provider and make the decision that is right for you.
Is there someone you know who you think would like to read this article? You can cut and paste the following link into an email to them and it will take them directly to the article on our website: Flu Shot or Not? article
Note: thanks to Hilary Andrews, ND of Vaccine Consult for much of the statistical and historical data used in this article.