In the fall season you may be considering whether you or other members of your family ought to be getting the ‘flu vaccine. Advertisements flooding the print and visual media, present a foregone conclusion — “get vaccinated now!” However, the research data regarding whether the flu vaccine is effective is less than compelling. Indeed, the literature search that I did for this article indicates that there are a number of studies both for and against vaccination. To believe the advertisements is unwise because they are based on fear and incomplete evidence. For example, they fail to point out that the deaths from influenza that they quote are almost totally related (75%) to those people who are chronically ill and over the age of 70. Deaths from influenza rarely occur in healthy adults and children.
What is a person to do? There are a number of points to consider when thinking about whether to get vaccinated against the flu or not. Here they are:
- Realize that influenza is often confused with the common cold, sore throat or cough. ‘Flu vaccines do not protect against the common cold or sore throat, and those who claim that they do are misinformed.
- There are many viruses that cause real influenza. Each year scientists attempt to evaluate which viruses are likely to be causing influenza in the subsequent year. About once in every 5 to 10 years they are totally wrong, and the vaccine has no impact at all on the incidence of influenza in the subsequent year. That means that if you have a shot that year then you have taken it in vain.
- Although several studies have been done in the last 10 to 15 years regarding the effectiveness of the ‘flu vaccine the results of these studies are inconsistent because:
(a) Many of the people in the studies did not suffer from influenza but actually had what is called “influenza-like illness” or ILI. This means that they may have had the symptoms of the ‘flu, (often similar to the symptoms of the common cold or cough), but that the diagnosis of influenza was not confirmed by laboratory.
(b) Studies based on this presumption are unscientific. In Canada in 2004/2005 only 15% of those tested with ILI were positive for influenza virus.Some studies on the elderly suggest that they reduce mortality and others do not. The same applies to many of the studies in different groups reviewed over the last 15 years. There is no evidence to suggest children less than 2 years benefit form the vaccine, and more importantly there are no studies of safety in children at all!
(c) There is a ‘selection bias’ in many studies suggesting that the results of the study are influenced by selection of the population studied. This may over-estimate the effectiveness of the ‘flu vaccine
If you are a health care worker, evidence suggests that there is no point in being vaccinated unless the patients that you are in contact with are vaccinated as well. Side effects (that we know about) are few, but there are some serious ones including a creeping paralysis known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. This occurs in about 1.6/100,000 people. Its incidence may increase with the flu vaccine. Supposedly reversible it can nevertheless leave you with chronic illness. If only 1/4 vaccinations actually prevents the “real ‘flu” then why risk this? Flu vaccines contain mercury, and are derived from egg. Those allergic to eggs and those concerned about mercury for whatever reason should avoid the vaccine.
There are still too many unanswered questions and not enough consistent results to recommend whether a flu shot is advisable. One of the most prominent researchers and commentators in this area is Vittorio Demicheli who has made several comments about the provincially funded Ontario, Canada vaccination program initiated in 2000. On the heels of the 2000 decision by the Ontario government to invest $38 million of taxpayer’s money in a universal flu vaccine program, Demicheli writes in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2001:
“Given the quality of the information available… the Ontario decision… [could be considered] an experiment, a sort of pilot project. Unfortunately, the level of uncertainty that still surrounds the problem of influenza prevention is so high that the consequences of this decision… will probably raise many new questions and leave the crucial ones unanswered.” So where does that leave you, the reader, in terms of making a decision? In my opinion, if you are a healthy person between the ages of birth and 70, stay away from the ‘flu vaccine. If you are over 70 and you have a chronic illness that might result in increased lung infections, then the flu vaccine may be considered helpful in preventing either the flu or possible pneumonia or other respiratory infection, although some would disagree even with this advice. If you have fibromyalgia, autoimmune disease, multiple chemical sensitivity, or chronic fatigue syndrome then you should definitely stay away from the flu vaccine. In these chronic conditions the immune system is sufficiently compromised that its stimulation by vaccine is unwise.
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