About this time of the year, I get asked by many of my clients what I think of the flu vaccine and whether I would recommend it or not.  Every year, my answer is pretty much the same…

Given the findings of non-industry sponsored research” (those who do not have a vested interest profiting from the making or selling of the vaccine)…

“I would rather support the immune system first.” 

My reason for this is the fact that it is the heartiness of one’s immune system that determines one’s susceptibility to infection in the first place.  So why not start there?

For every report that states how beneficial and effective the flu vaccine is you can find several that dispute them with contrary information.  When you eliminate the studies that are sponsored by those with a vested interest, like the companies making and selling the vaccines, you begin to appreciate the fact that not all the reporting is good news for vaccine usage. 

A Cochrane review which provides systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care, found that in healthy adults the…

“…influenza vaccination probably has a small protective effect against influenza and ILI (Influenza-like illness), as 71 people would need to be vaccinated to avoid one influenza case, and 29 would need to be vaccinated to avoid one case of ILI.  Vaccination may have little or no appreciable effect on hospitalization or number of working days lost."  Yet, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) itself, counters that “flu vaccine prevents tens of thousands of hospitalizations each year. For example, during 2016-2017, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations.” 

The problem with this kind of reporting is that symptoms of actual flu are nearly impossible to distinguish from Influenza-like Illness.  Influenza A is the real concern when it comes to serious illness, hospitalizations and possibly death.  All other flus are of much less concern because they carry significantly less illness.  But Influenza A accounts for only 10% of all flu-like illnesses.  For reporting purposes however, all these cases get lumped together which provides for the large numbers.

At the risk of drowning in statistics, another Cochrane review shows that there is some modest benefit for elders.   

“Six percent to 2.4% of elders may experience less influenza over a single season meaning that 30 people would need to be vaccinated with inactivated influenza vaccines to avoid one case of influenza. Older adults also probably experience less ILI, from 6% to 3.5%, meaning that 42 people would need to be vaccinated to prevent one case of ILI.”   The results for children over the age of 2 years are more optimistic.  “Live attenuated and inactivated vaccines can reduce the proportion of children who have influenza and ILI.  Using inactivated vaccines, 5 children would need to be vaccinated for one child to avoid influenza, and 12 children would need to be vaccinated to prevent one case of ILI.” (Cochrane Report, 2016).

So, given this information, some might think that they should have both their kids and their parents vaccinated.  But before reaching for the alcohol wipe let’s talk about the number of troubling adverse effects following flu vaccination.  VAERS – Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System – was set-up to provide physicians and patients with a way to report “poor health outcomes”, otherwise known as adverse reactions, following vaccination.  The CDC ideally uses this information to determine safety and risk/benefit analysis to the vaccinations currently being used.  About 13 percent of the some 30,000 post-vaccine events reported to VAERS are considered serious, associated with disability, hospitalization, life threatening illness or death, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

What’s more disconcerting is the fact that adverse effects following vaccination is seriously under-reported.  A 2013 article in Neurology Clinical Practice calculated that “only between 1 and 10 percent of adverse reactions are actually reported by physicians. If that is the case, then the actual range of deaths following flu vaccination in the past 25 years may be between 5,600 and 56,000”. 

One can speculate on the possible reasons for the adverse reactions.  But the fact that the multi-dose vials of the flu vaccine contain the preservative, thimerosal, might be part of the problem for some susceptible individuals (children and pregnant women).   Media reports that flu vaccines contain only a "trace" or "negligible" amounts of mercury are incorrect. Federal regulations define trace amounts to mean less than 1 microgram. Typical flu shots contain 25mcg of mercury (25 times the trace amount).  Best advice here is that if you do get the flu shot make sure it’s a single dose application which does not contain thimerosal. 

Given this information, which is only the tip of the iceberg in this ongoing discussion, gives me pause about embracing the flu shot for all every year. 

My biggest concern, however, is the false sense of security that the vaccine offers. 

Instead of going to the front of the line for your flu shot, consider doing a little inventory of your habits and routines that might be contributing to your less-than-stellar immune function.  True concerns about “getting the flu” could generate the adoption of healthy habits that help the immune system do its job better.  The defense and repair process provided by a robust immune system depends on adequate sleep, a nutrient-dense diet and the occasional “media fast” and use of relaxation techniques to support our resilience.  Occasionally, use of well-researched supplements can be very beneficial as well, especially for those who may have increased opportunities for exposure, like teachers, health personnel, daycare workers, etc.

Whether you go for the “shot or not”, taking a pro-active stance can benefit you and your family in the long run.  Learn more about what you can do to more actively protect yourself from this year’s flu by boosting your immune health.