It’s a common question, especially in the fall. Although the majority of people I know don’t get the flu shot, across the population, that’s more the exception than the rule.
It shouldn’t be surprising that most opt in for the vaccine. Advertisements, commercials, and signs make you think it’s “just what you do” in October.
I was recently in line at the pharmacy, waiting to pick up my prescription for Armour thyroid.
Being at the back of the line, I stood next to the hand sanitizer dispenser. That stuff you slather on your hands that’s supposed to kill 99.99% of viruses and bacteria. When I got to the front of the line, I was offered to get a shot that put some of those viruses in my body that the hand sanitizer was supposed to kill. Modern-day medical irony.
I skipped both options. But it got me thinking about the flu shot and the fact that I haven’t addressed it in an article before. I’m often asked why I choose not to get the vaccine, but hadn’t put my thoughts on virtual paper to address it.
If you’re for, against, or a fence-sitter when it comes to the flu shot, I hope this article gives you some stuff to think about, to lead to other conversations, and in the end, to help you make your own, informed decision rather than following the herd.
Here’s a couple of questions to help open your mind. I’m not going to answer them. I’m just going to open with them:
- Why are people so quick to jump on board with getting a flu shot, or having their kids get it, when there’s barely any long-term research to show it won’t have side effects?
- Why are some of those same people so quick to question the safety of natural health products that have been safely used for thousands of years?
Perplexing, isn’t it?
Influenza-Like Illness vs Influenza
More than 200 viruses can cause Influenza-Like Illness (ILI). As the name suggests, ILI causes flu-like symptoms without being caused by the influenza virus.
Symptoms of Influenza-Like Illness include:
- Runny nose
- Fatigue and weakness
- Sore throat
More than likely, when you were a kid, your parents let you skip a day of school where you laid under a blanket on the couch, drank Sprite, and watched boring daytime TV. Once in a while, you’d get a second day off of school, but most of the time, you were well enough the next day to go back to school.
Getting the flu was unfortunate, but not surprising. It just happens, and most of the time, it’s no big deal. Today, it’s become a big deal in part because there’s money to be made, but I won’t go there in this article. Maybe another time.
So, the fall is flu season. Sometimes you get “the flu” from the influenza virus. Sometimes you get “the flu” from something else.
The flu vaccine targets those 7-15% of cases caused by the influenza virus.
How Does the Flu Vaccine Work?
You might think the flu shot gives you some sort of superpower to combat the flu. That’s not how it works.
The flu shot doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid the flu. It reduces the likelihood you’ll get it, if you’re exposed to the same strain the vaccine was designed for.
When someone says, “I’ve gotten the flu shot for 10 years in a row and I haven’t gotten the flu one time,” their avoidance of the flu and getting the flu shot could be pure coincidence.
“When someone says, “I’ve never gotten the flu shot and I never get the flu,” that could also be coincidence.
When someone says, “I got the flu shot and the next day I felt like I had the flu,” that could absolutely be the result of the flu shot.
Influenza A, B, and C and the Vaccine
The viruses that cause the majority of ILI come from one of two groups, Influenza A and Influenza B. There’s also Influenza C. Each of those groups is made up of many different virus strains.
At the beginning of each year, researchers and scientists try to guess which of the top two Influenza A and Influenza B viruses will cause the majority of people to get the flu the next flu season.
Once the guess is agreed upon, pharmaceutical companies go to work, manufacturing the vaccine. The vaccine contains three or four of those strains most likely to strike in the next flu season.
In all, pharmaceutical companies produce four types of influenza vaccines worldwide. Taken from The Cochrane Library report, they are:
- Whole‐virion inactivated vaccines, which consist of complete viruses that have been ‘killed’ or inactivated, so that they are not infectious but retain their strain‐specific antigenic properties.
- Subunit inactivated vaccines, which are made of influenza surface antigens (H and N) only.
- Split‐virion inactivated vaccines in which the viral structure is broken up by a disrupting agent. These vaccines contain both surface and internal antigens.
- Live attenuated, cold‐adapted vaccines in which the live virus in the vaccine can only multiply in the cooler nasal passages and which are administered intranasally.
That’s as technical as I want to get. I only included the list because you might notice them when a healthcare practitioner starts pushing the vaccine on you.
Once the vaccine enters your body, it triggers an infection.
It’s usually a lighter infection than a full-blown case of the flu, but it’s an infection nonetheless.
To be clear, the flu shot can cause flu-like symptoms. The symptoms might be less severe and not last as long, but you can feel like you got the flu from the flu shot.
The infection produces antibodies, which act like cellular soldiers, trained to attack the specific virus you just infected yourself with.
If you get exposed to the exact same influenza virus you were vaccinated with, you’re more likely to stop the virus from making you sick than someone who hasn’t gotten the vaccine.
However, your antibodies are so specific that they’re pretty much useless to a close cousin of the virus in your vaccine. If the cousin hits you, you’re no more immune to it than someone who didn’t get the vaccine.
The infection does compromise your immune system, so it’s also possible that you could get sick from something else shortly after getting the flu shot.
Flu Vaccine Effectiveness and Efficacy
The advertising campaigns behind the flu shot would have you believe the flu shot is a proven way to avoid the flu. It isn’t.
The statistics used to support the flu shot make things sound better than they are. To simplify the numbers and separate hype from reality, I’ve included some statistics based on data from papers published by The Cochrane Library.
To help those number make more sense, I first need to explain four terms you’ll see.
Vaccine efficacy refers to how well a vaccine works in a controlled environment. In the case of the flu vaccine, efficacy measures how well the vaccine is at preventing measurable influenza virus in the blood in the weeks and months following vaccination.
The measure of effectiveness is how well the vaccine prevents Influenza-Like Illness, or what most people think of as “the flu.”
3. Risk Reduction
In the tables below, I’ve included columns listing the “risk reduction.” This is an important number to understand.
When the CDC or a newsperson says the flu vaccine is “60% effective,” most people assume that means it eliminates the flu for 60% of people exposed to it. That isn’t the case. It really means that it reduces the risk of getting the flu by 60%.
As you’ll see, the risk of getting the flu is relatively low even without the flu shot, so the “risk reduction” is the level by which the flu vaccine reduces that risk.
4. Magic Number
What I’ve listed as the “Magic #” is technically called the Number Needed to Vaccinate. It’s the number of people who, based on the data, need to get vaccinated for one person to not get the flu.
I’ll come back to this later.
Risk Reduction of the Flu Vaccine
The following is a collection of data from reviews by The Cochrane Library. The systematic reviews were published in early 2018, which include the numbers below.
|Vaccine Efficacy||Treatment||Control||Risk Reduction||Magic #|
|Live, attenuated virus||4%||18%||78%||7|
Obviously, kids are the most likely to get the flu, which is why the CDC, pharmacies, healthcare providers, and schools encourage all the children to get the flu shot.
In my opinion, that means we’re putting kids into an experiment where we have no idea what the long-term repercussions could be. That sounds like it could be the opening to an apocalyptic movie script.
Maybe we’ll find that getting injected with the flu each year over a lifetime has no effect. Then again, we might find it has dire consequences.
By the way, during the 2008-2009 flu season in Japan, researchers tested the effects of just 1200 IU of vitamin D per day on children, to see what kind of impact it had on reducing the occurrence of the flu.
At the end of the study, 18.6% of the placebo group had gotten the flu, compared to 10.8% of the kids who got the vitamin D. That’s a 42% percent risk reduction with a lower-than-optimal dose of vitamin D. Of course, vitamin D is super-cheap and isn’t a pharmaceutical, so it doesn’t get the same sort of attention that the flu shot does.
|Vaccine Efficacy||Treatment||Control||Risk Reduction||Magic #|
|Vaccine Efficacy||Treatment||Control||Risk Reduction||Magic #|
The numbers for healthy adults are far less impressive, and for older adults, the risk reduction numbers are impressive, but older adults aren’t that likely to get the flu anyway.
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine might not be as significant as the numbers suggest either.
First, there’s much debate about the bias behind the vaccine research. If the goal of the research is to justify the flu vaccine, that bias can affect almost every part of the study.
Second, the vaccine research may have what’s called a “healthy user effect.”
It’s believed that a significant percentage of people who get the flu shot are already above average when it comes to being proactive about their health. This makes them less likely to get the flu, with or without the flu shot.
As a result, they make make the flu shot groups’ numbers more impressive, being that their avoidance of the flu and the flu shot were coincidence, not cause and effect.
Most health conscious people aren’t contrarian about the flu shot like me. They just follow conventional advice.
Where is the Safety Data?
There are far more questions than answers when it comes to the long-term effects of the flu vaccine.
The only thing we can be certain of is that the flu vaccine can cause mild flu-like symptoms, such as a slight fever, fatigue, and aches. But nobody knows what impact the vaccines can have long-term.
Unfortunately, flu vaccine promoters often dismiss reactions to the flu virus. It’s like when someone breaks out in hives or develops a rash after trying a new supplement or essential oils, and the friend that sold it to them say, “Don’t worry, it’s just a detox reaction. Keep using it.”
In the United States, the government, healthcare organizations, pharmacies, pharmaceutical companies, and even social media and web companies have gone all-in on the flu shot.
As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) explicitly states:
The best way to prevent flu is by getting vaccinated each year.CDC Website
Weird, it used to be washing hands, getting enough sleep, eating well, etc. Now it’s just getting a shot?
Other countries aren’t so quick to jump into the herd mentality of vaccination. Take the British National Health Service as an example:
Flu is an unpredictable virus that can be unpleasant, but if you’re otherwise healthy it’ll usually clear up on its own within a week.
It can cause severe illness and even death among vulnerable groups, including older people, pregnant women and people with an underlying health condition.
Certain people are more likely to develop potentially serious complications of flu, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
These people are advised to have a flu vaccine each year.
Flu can be very unpleasant for otherwise healthy people, but most people will recover from flu within a week or 2.NHS Website
The reality is…
As of July 31, 2019, there have been more than 166,178 reports of influenza vaccine reactions, hospitalizations, injuries and deaths following influenza vaccinations made to the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), including 1,673 related deaths, 13,373 hospitalizations, and 3,358 related disabilities. However, the numbers of vaccine-related injuries and deaths reported to VAERS may not reflect the true number of serious health problems that occur after influenza vaccination.National Vaccine Information Center, Retrieved Oct 3 2019
Human beings are rarely harmed by natural health products that have been safely used for thousands of years, even if there isn’t random, controlled trials to support their safety. If they caused problems, humans would have figured it out thousands of years ago.
However, when we start injecting viruses, and the ingredients they’re contained in, into our bodies year-after-year without any long-term history to prove they won’t cause damage, we’re gambling with our futures, or even worse, our kids’ futures.
Glimpses of Other Health Concerns
In the instances when research has found evidence of health risks, it’s been discredited.
For example…A large cohort study found that women in the first trimester of pregnancy who were given a flu shot were 20% more likely to give birth to children who developed autism.
The findings of this study were criticized by numerous researchers based on it being a cohort, or observational study. Yet that’s the same kind of study that’s made up the most of the efficacy and effectiveness research in support of the flu shot.
In another example, children who got the Pandemrix® vaccine in 2009 (which wasn’t available in the US) were 5 to 14 times, and adults 2 to 7 times more likely to develop narcolepsy.
Of concern for older adults, one of the vaccines for 2019 includes MF59, a formula that includes squalene.
Squalene is an oil added to the vaccine to stimulate a greater immune response. It may also aggravate pre-existing conditions such as atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and arthritis. Of course, the CDC says MF59 is totally safe.
The irony is that it’s being used in vaccines with a population most likely to have those pre-existing conditions.
Negative Vaccine Effectiveness
I’ll use the data from the healthy adults above as an example.
Let’s say you’re one of 77 adults who gets a live attenuated flu vaccine. You luck out and don’t get the flu. However, because you did get the vaccine, you compromised your immune system and end up getting sick with something else.
That’s negative vaccine effectiveness. You might get the benefit of the vaccine, but at a cost in your health in some other way.
Unfortunately, negative vaccine effectiveness only gets brought up from those questioning the safety of the vaccine, and is often shot down by those who believe the flu vaccine is more or less safe, based on their opinions.
As Dr. Margaret McCartney said, in a statement published in the British Medical Journal,
I would have the vaccination if a high quality trial showed that it was worth it for me or my patients. But flu vaccination is offered millions of times every year at a huge opportunity cost; given so much uncertainty, this policy is impossible to justify.McCartney, BMJ 2014
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights and democracy group called into question the motives for mass vaccination. In a motion entitled Faked Pandemics – a Threat for Health, they said:
In order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against the flu, pharmaceutical companies have influenced scientists and official agencies responsible for public health standards, to alarm governments worldwide. They have made them squander tight health care resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and needlessly exposed millions of healthy people to the risk of unknown side-effects and insufficiently tested vaccines.Faked Pandemics – a threat for health. Wodarg et al.
What Will the Cost Be For Today’s Kids?
I read and reread this statement in the published paper Influenza Vaccination Strategies Should Target Children:
Models suggest that vaccinating 20 percent of school-aged children can decrease adult mortality more than vaccinating 90 percent of those aged over 65 years. With vaccination coverage of 40 percent, serious morbidity and mortality could be reduced by 70 percent in the elderly.Bambery et al.
To summarize, we should stick our kids each year with a vaccine of unknown long-term side effects, so that we can theoretically save the lives of older adults according to a mathematical model.
That seems like the opening to an apocalyptic movie more than common sense science. Oh, and the paper I mentioned above was published in the journal Public Health Ethics.
What about natural health alternatives?
What about vitamin D, vitamin C, essential oils, elderberry syrup, and other natural remedies?
All of those choices help to reduce your risk of the flu. None of them prevent the flu.
Just as someone who’s gotten the flu shot for the past ten years and avoided the flu shouldn’t conclude that the flu shot prevented 10 years of the flu, someone who uses natural health products and has avoided the flu shouldn’t conclude the natural health products prevented the flu.
Do healthy choices make it less likely you’ll get sick? Absolutely. But please don’t assume your “study of one” is the answer to getting or avoiding the flu. The flu is, and may always be, a natural part of life.
Would you get the flu shot?
I’ve never gotten the flu shot. I realize some people will call me crazy and careless, just as they’d call me racist and deplorable for voting for Donald Trump.
That’s okay. I don’t make decisions without careful consideration. Ask my wife. It took me three hours at the Mall of America to buy a pair of sunglasses.
Skipping out on the flu shot isn’t an act of rebellion. It’s a decision I’ve made after weighing existing and missing evidence. Right now, I believe there’s more potential risk in getting the shot than risk in avoiding it.
If you’re reading this and you truly believe the vaccine is effective, you won’t care that I don’t get it because your vaccine should protect you.
As for me, let me wrap this up by saying…
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