The flu season is here!!! And with it comes the big question, to get the flu vaccine or not? This can be a very confusing topic, and there is a ton of conflicting information out there. Ultimately, there is not going to be a one-answer-fits all, but rather we each need to evaluate our own situation and decide what is best for our health and the health of our family. But let’s try to clear up some of the confusion, so you can make the most informed decision possible!
Is the vaccine effective?
No vaccine is 100% effective and the flu vaccine especially has extremely variable rates of efficacy. This year the CDC is speculating about a 62% success rate, meaning that out of 100 people who have been vaccinated this season and exposed to the flu, 62 of them do not report symptoms of influenza (fever, aching, cough, runny nose, sore throat…). The reason for this variability is that the vaccine is created new each year by virologists who attempt to predict how the three most common strains of influenza will mutate, and then a vaccine is created based on those predictions. Influenza virus is one of the most constantly mutating viruses known…thus it will be impossible to create a vaccine that is 100% effective and that will create lifelong immunity.
Anyone who’s had the flu can attest to how completely awful it is. However, the far majority of us recover fully within 10-14 days. Where the flu can become a problem is when it sets the stage for a secondary bacterial infection, namely pneumonia. There are particular subsets of the population that are more susceptible to a secondary infection, namely the very young (less than one year old), the elderly, and those with a compromised immune system or lung issues (chronic asthma, COPD, emphysema). Ironically, the influenza vaccine works the least well in these populations, with much lower success rates than in older children and healthy younger adults. The reason for this discrepancy is based on how the vaccine interacts with our immune system. The part of our immune system that the flu vaccine stimulates to make antibodies, is not as active or developed in the very young or elderly, and in those already fighting a chronic illness.
Many people have questions of additives and preservatives in the flu vaccine. It is a fact that the multi-dose vaccine vial used for adults (the most commonly used vaccine) has thimerosal used as a preservative. Thimerosal is a mercury based preservative. While the amount of thimerosal in a single dose of vaccine is FDA approved, it is still a dose of mercury, which is a known neurotoxin. Thimerosal is not present in the children’s vaccine, nor is it present in single-dose vials. There is also a very small amount of formaldehyde in the vaccine. Formaldehyde is used to disinfect the vaccine (to make sure nothing live is growing in it, which would be very, very dangerous). Formaldehyde is, of course, not good for anyone; however, this is, again, much less formaldehyde than we’re often exposed to daily as a natural by-product in regular foods we are eating.
Does the vaccine help my immune system?
Something else to consider is that there is conclusive research that shows that our long term immunity to the flu is not helped by the flu vaccine. This has to do with how the vaccine was made to interact with our immune system and have minimal side effects. The live vaccine, which is not regularly used anymore, is a little bit different and not what I’m referring to here. When we naturally get the flu, our immune system is being exposed to the whole virus, all the different bits and pieces and all the different chemicals created by that virus. All the different parts of our immune system respond to this information and our immune system records this data and uses it in future attack. And although the influenza virus is constantly shifting and mutating, and there are different strains, there are many basic parts that stay the same. So the more often we’re exposed to and fight an actual flu infection, the better our immune system gets at reacting to the virus, and our symptoms become less severe and have shorter duration. Because the flu vaccine is stimulating only one part of our immune system, and is focused on making our body recognize just one little part of one specific strain, our immune system does not record this information for future use, and the vaccine does not give us long term protection from the flu.
What can I do to prevent getting sick?
There are many things you can do to help protect yourself from the flu without getting the vaccine (or in addition to). Hygiene is first, of course. Lots and lots of hand washing, lots and lots of alcohol based hand sanitizer like Purell (I don’t love the “antimicrobial” sanitizers or soaps). Cough into your elbow; be aware of the space you share with others. The flu virus is a seasonal bug, with a consistent flare in late winter/early spring in both hemispheres. There has been great research done that is pointing to the idea that it’s not specifically us being in closer quarters during these months that gives us a rise in influenza, but it’s lack of sun that is increasing susceptibility.
Research has shown that those taking Vitamin D (800-2000 IU/day) through the winter months have much less susceptibility to the flu and record much less severe symptoms. We know now that Vitamin D is integral to our innate immune system’s ability to recognize and quickly fight a foreign invader. Our innate immune system is the part of our immune system that is the first line of defense against attack (before an antibody response). Both Echinacea and Elderberry have been shown to have specific anti-influenza virus affects in vitro (they work similarly to Tamiflu in stopping viral replication). Clinically, I see these herbs work best when taken heavily and consistently at the first sign of illness or known exposure. Probiotics taken daily (10 billion cfu/day) help regulate our immune system, as these beneficial bacteria create a chemical that the T-cells of our immune system require to become regulatory and not inflammatory. And lastly, good old fish oil (2000mg/day total omega 3), taken daily, has been shown to increase innate immunity, and balance the immune system. Please consult your health practitioner before starting any new supplement or herb.
Who should get the Flu vaccine?
In healthy adults who have very young infants at home, I often recommend the vaccine, along with other protective measures, since newborns are an especially vulnerable population with completely undeveloped immune systems, and they’re only defense is their mama’s milk (if they are breastfeeding). Similarly, if you have family members at home who cannot take preventative measures against the flu and who are immune compromised or elderly, it may be extra protective for you to get the vaccine.
Whether or not to get the flu vaccine is ultimately going to be a personal decision based on one’s own health, where you work, what you’re exposed to, and who you’re going home to, and how old you are. I know it’s confusing, and there’s a lot of fear. Please feel free to contact me with more specific questions!