By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Myth: Flu shots are your best defense against the flu.
Fact: They’re not terribly effective and can give you a false sense of security.
What to Do: Keep your immune system strong.
If you Google “flu shot” you will get an avalanche of hits (more than 90 million of them) that include the usual recommendations from public health authorities everywhere. There is now, in fact, a Google feature that can identify the nearest clinic or drug store that can give you the shot.
A growing sign of cyber tech advancing the cause of public health? It is if you believe in the flu shot.
Flu Shots − Way Off Target?
I haven’t recommended the flu shot to patients. And if you are healthy, I say think twice about whether it is really the best prevention strategy for you.
From my observation over the years those who have gotten shots experience colds and flu as much as people who have passed on them. There are many ways to protect yourself against the flu.
What the Research Demonstrates about Flu Shots and Why Some Studies Are More Reliable than Others
Flu shot effectiveness does not have a great track record, no matter what your doctor or public health officials say. A few years ago I read a British Medical Journal review of multiple studies relating to flu shot efficacy. The conclusion was that the evidence indicates “little or no effect.” The article said most of the medical studies to date on the subject are poorly designed and contain many confusing factors and biases making it difficult to determine true effectiveness. The difference between predictions and actual effect on hospital admissions, death rates, and time off work was “striking,” in the opinion of the authors, members of The Cochrane Collaboration, a large international network that reviews research studies.
In another article, the same group strongly questioned the reliability of studies on the effect of flu shots on healthy adults. Many of the studies were funded by the pharmaceutical industry and manufacturers of the vaccines. These “studies were published in more prestigious journals and cited more than…studies funded from public sources (which) were significantly less likely to report conclusions favorable to the vaccines.” The Cochrane review “showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin” and “there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions.”
Earlier, in 2005, I read an analysis by a group of researchers at the National Institutes of Health. They had crunched numbers from flu shot results going back decades and said they couldn’t find any connection between increasing vaccination coverage after 1980 and declining mortality rates in any age group. To them, the benefits of flu shots have been “substantially” overestimated.
More recently, in January 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a one-month survey (Martin – Moderate) of 1,155 children and adults indicated that the vaccine was effective in 62 percent of cases. However, another report (Martin – Poor) one month later indicated that flu shots were a paltry 9 percent effective for people over 65. Those who got the shot were just 9 percent less likely to develop flu than those who didn’t.
Who knows what such numbers mean, and if they are substantially overestimated to begin with, why depend on the flu shot to keep you healthy when there are other, less painful ways to do so.
Toxicity: Another Consideration
In addition to the question of effectiveness, there is also the issue of thimerosal – a mercury-based preservative and anti-microbial agent – used in multi-dose vaccines vials that can be administered to more than one patient. Mercury is infamous as a potent neurotoxin, however, government health officials insist that the level of thimerosal, used for decades, is safe, and protects against contamination by bacteria and fungi of the vial once it is opened. Single-dose vials are made without thimerosal.
If you opt to get a flu shot, make sure you get a thimerosal-free version. It’s not a good idea to introduce any mercury into your body, no matter who says it is safe.
Who I Would Recommend Get a Flu Shot
Who would I recommend flu shots for? People with poor respiratory function who are vulnerable to pneumonia, or to those with fragile health due to a recent cardiac event (e.g. a heart attack or an episode of unstable angina; see Flu Vaccine Prevents Heart Attacks and Strokes? Don’t Buy Into the Hype).
The Sinatra Solution: Better Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System
If you want to keep colds and flu at bay, or at least minimize them if you are affected, honor your immune system and keep it strong. How do you do that? Here’s how:
2. Get plenty of rest. Here are some Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep.
3. Keep your stress under control. That’s extremely important. Stress can dynamite your immune system.
4. Climate permitting, expose your skin to 15 to 20 minutes direct sunlight each day to keep your vitamin D levels up.
5. Among my favorite supplement recommendations are N-acetyl cysteine (600-1,000 mg daily), selenium (100-200 mcg), vitamin D (2,000 IU), resveratrol (250 mg), and licorice root (1 dropperful under the tongue). Just a cautionary note on licorice root: don’t take it longer than 10 days and check with your doctor when considering using it if you have high blood pressure. Licorice has the potential to raise blood pressure because of an altering effect on potassium in the body. Used over time, it can increase blood pressure.
Now, if you’ve already had a flu shot this year, don’t let this give you a false sense of security. It’s still important to keep your immune system strong to protect against colds and flu strains you haven’t been vaccinated against.
- Jefferson T. Influenza vaccination: policy versus evidence. BMJ, 2006;333:912-15.
- Jefferson T, et al. Vaccines for preventing influenza in healthy adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2010; 7:CDOO1269
- Simonsen L, et al. Impact of influenza vaccination on seasonal mortality in the US elderly population. Arch Intern Med, 2005;165(3):265-72.
- Martin, Timothy. “Flu Shot Offers Moderate Protection Against the Flu.” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2013.
- Martin, Timothy. “Flu Shots Offer Poor Protection to Seniors.” The Wall Street Journal, Jan 11, 2013.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thimerosal and 2014-2015 Seasonal Flu Vaccines, published online at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/thimerosal.htm
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