By Dr. Mercola
Despite the fact that last year's (2014 to 2015) flu vaccine was a major flop with an abysmal 18 percent effectiveness rate, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publicly expressed unreserved confidence in this year's (2015-2016) vaccine.
In September 2015, CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a news conference, "Get vaccinated … That's the best way to protect yourself, your family and your community against flu."1
A CDC analysis also was used to reassure the public that the most common strains of influenza virus circulating in the US and in other regions match the strains included in this year's vaccine.2,3
That was in August 2015 and the "get vaccinated" advertisements have been out in full force – at airports, grocery stores, subways and more – telling Americans that the best way to prevent influenza and stay well during the flu season is by getting a flu shot.
It remains to be seen how effective (or ineffective) this year's flu vaccine will be, but in the meantime research has shown that much remains to be understood about the potential negative effects of frequent vaccination on human health.
Getting Flu Shots Regularly May Make You More Susceptible to the Flu
Data collected from Canada and Hong Kong during 2009-2010 showed that people who received the seasonal flu vaccine in 2008 had twice the risk of getting the H1N1 "swine flu" compared to those who hadn't received a flu shot.4,5,6
ABC News reported at that time that such shots may actually set you up for less "broad" protection than if you get, and recover from, a natural infection.7
It's also been shown that getting previous flu shots led to a blunting effect or "interference" that left the recipient less protected from certain influenza strains in later years
In fact, research in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that vaccine-induced protection against influenza was greatest among those not vaccinated during the prior five years.8
In other words, the long-term effects of getting an annual flu shot are completely unknown, but it appears this strategy may be backfiring, leaving those who have been vaccinated annually less protected than those who have not been frequently vaccinated.
Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at Toronto's University Health Network, told CBC News:9
"People do not have a good explanation for why … The idea basically is that your immune system is occupied elsewhere. It would be like getting the swirling ball of death on your Mac where your operating system is doing something else rather than opening the file."
Dr. Danuta Skowronski, a Canadian researcher who conducted the original study discovering individuals with a history of annual seasonal flu shots increased their risk of infection with pandemic H1N1 influenza, noted that the findings are so new that "policy-makers have not yet had a chance to fully digest them or understand the implications."10
Unfortunately, instead of warning the public that annual flu shots may carry unknown risks and cause effects that are not well understood, public health officials continue to promote them as a panacea for influenza prevention. To say this is misleading is a vast understatement.
Why Might Flu Shots Increase Your Risk of Certain Flu Infections?
Similar evidence demonstrating that flu shots might make you sicker continues to be released. For instance, research presented at the 105th International Conference of the American Thoracic Society in San Diego revealed that children who had gotten seasonal flu shots were more at risk for hospitalization from H1N1 pandemic influenza than children who had not gotten previous flu shots.
Children who had received the influenza vaccinations had three times the risk of hospitalization for H1N1pandemic influenza as children who were not vaccinated. Among children with asthma, the risk was even higher.11 Skowronski offered two hypotheses for why those who received seasonal flu shots in 2008 may have been at increased risk for pandemic influenza in 2009:12
• No Protective Antibodies Generated: It's possible that the 2008 seasonal flu vaccine protected against an H1N1 virus that was related to the 2009 circulating pandemic influenza virus – but not similar enough to generate antibodies to neutralize it. The 2008 flu shot may therefore have "facilitated infection with the pandemic virus" the following year.
A similar mechanism is seen with dengue viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, which cause hemorrhagic dengue fever in humans; those infected with one type of dengue virus are at increased risk of developing life-threatening dengue if they're infected with one of the other three virus strains.
• Infection Block Hypothesis: If you're naturally infected with influenza, your body will build antibodies that may fight off other influenza strains that circulate in future years. Flu vaccine, however, will only protect you against the type A or type B influenza strains it contains and artificial vaccine acquired immunity is not identical to naturally acquired immunity. So it's possible that people who didn't get influenza A infection prior to 2009, were therefore more susceptible to the influenza A pandemic virus.
Skowronski stressed to CBC News that these are only theories, noting:
"… [W]ho knows, frankly? The wise man knows he knows nothing when it comes to influenza, so you always have to be cautious in speculating."13
Flu Shots Urged for Pregnant Women Despite Unknown Effects
The flu vaccine is widely recommended for pregnant women, despite a lack of adequate safety testing. It was around this time in 2014 that a study came out in the New England Journal of Medicine stating the flu vaccine provided partial protection against confirmed influenza in pregnant women and their infants.14
The media began touting headlines like "flu vaccine safe for pregnant women," and one news outlet, News 4 Jax, even quoted maternal-fetal medicine Dr. Erin Burnett as saying, "All pregnant women should get the vaccine because it's 100 percent safe in pregnancy."15
This is quite a statement, since even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists influenza (and Tdap) vaccines as either Pregnancy Category B or C biologicals, which means that adequate testing has not been done in humans to demonstrate safety for pregnant women, and it is not known whether the vaccines can cause fetal harm or affect reproduction capacity.16
There are ingredients in flu vaccines, including mercury-containing (Thimerosal) preservatives, and many more bioactive and potentially toxic ingredients that have not been fully evaluated for potential genotoxic or other adverse effects on the human fetus developing in the womb that may negatively affect health after birth.
The rush to vaccinate pregnant women to try to passively vaccinate the developing fetus is a clear case of policy preceding science, as NVIC President Barbara Loe Fisher pointed out in her public comment at a recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) vaccine advisory committee meeting where public health officials made preparations to fast track vaccines targeting pregnant women to licensure. She said,
"Maternal vaccination policy has preceded vaccine safety science. Now there are proposals on the table here in this Committee and in the 21st Century Cures Act backed by FDA and industry to lower FDA licensing standards to ensure that vaccine policy can continue to precede vaccine safety science in the future."17
It is clear that in the future many pregnant women are not only going to be urged to get the current government recommended influenza, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccines during every pregnancy but also be urged to get more vaccines that may not have been thoroughly tested. While women are evaluating their options for staying well during pregnancy, it is always wise to optimize vitamin D levels, which has the potential to not only cut your risk of the flu in half but also can protect you and your baby from serious complications, such as premature delivery and preeclampsia.
More People Opting Out of the Flu Vaccine in the UK
Last year, the flu vaccine in the UK was even more of a failure than in the US. In the UK, during the 2014-15 flu season the flu vaccine was only 3 percent effective.
The Conversation described this as "one bad year," but even during a good year the effectiveness is usually around 50 percent, which means whether or not it will protect you amounts to the flip of a coin.18
So it's no wonder that this year the UK is seeing low uptake of the vaccine – influenza vaccination rates are down 6 percent compared to last year.19 Vaccination rates are even low among groups considered to be most vulnerable to the flu, such as the elderly, children under 5 and those with chronic heart, lung or kidney disease.
The fact is that people are right to be skeptical about an annual vaccine with this kind of questionable track record. Its effectiveness is wholly dependent on the educated "guesses" of public health officials to choose the "right" influenza strains that circulate widely in any given year to include in the vaccine.
And then they are banking on the hope that the virus won't mutate into a new strain between the time the vaccine is developed in the spring and when the "flu season" begins in the fall.
This is precisely what happened last year. In June 2015, research was published in Cell Reports showing that the influenza A virus that had widely circulated during the 2014-2015 flu season had mutated. However, that mutation was not factored in when the vaccine was developed in early 2014.20
Even then, if all conditions are accounted for and you've been vaccinated against the exact same influenza strain you're likely to be exposed to in real life, the vaccine is not 100-percent effective. As mentioned, on a good year it may only be 50 or 60 percent effective.
During the past three flu seasons the CDC has claimed the flu vaccine's overall effectiveness in the US was between 47 percent and 62 percent, but some experts have measured it at 0 to 7 percent.21,22
Statins May Weaken the Effect of the Flu Vaccine
If you're taking statin cholesterol-lowering drugs, you should know that this may weaken your body's response to the flu vaccine. In those over 65 who received a flu shot, researchers found antibody concentrations were between 38 percent and 67 percent lower than those in people not taking statins.23 Among younger individuals a weakened response was also seen.
Those who received a flu shot and were taking statins were 11 percent more likely to develop a respiratory illness that required medical attention compared to those not taking the drugs.24 It's thought that statins' anti-inflammatory properties may be responsible for lowering the immune system's response to the vaccine.
Considering that one in four Americans over aged 45 take statins, this could be one reason why the flu vaccine appears particularly ineffective among the elderly. The Lancet even concluded, "evidence for protection in adults aged 65 years or older is lacking"25 The "solution" was to come out with a new, higher dose vaccine – Fluzone High-Dose vaccine. It contains four times the amount of antigen found in a standard dose.26
Research published in 2014 showed Fluzone may lower the risk of getting influenza by 24 percent among seniors compared to the standard-dose vaccine.27 This still isn't saying much, considering during the 2012 to 2013 flu season the standard flu vaccine was just 9 percent effective in seniors aged 65 and over.
Even when getting a vaccine with four times the dose, only one in four cases of influenza in older patients was potentially prevented. And it's unclear whether the vaccine actually lowers the risk of influenza-related health complications and deaths.
Now, in another attempt to force the elderly to respond to the notoriously ineffective influenza vaccine, the FDA has licensed a potentially highly reactive flu vaccine that contains a controversial oil in water MF59 (squalene) adjuvant, which has been associated with development of narcolepsy and other autoimmune disorders and chronic illness.
The Fluad vaccine developed by Novartis (sold in 2015 to Australia's CSL Group now trading as Seqiris) is supposed to stimulate a supercharged inflammatory immune response in those over age 65 that will be more protective. At a September 2015 FDA committee meeting, consumer advocates protested that not enough study had been done in U.S. seniors to prove the squalene-adjuvanted vaccine was safe for them.28
Even Congress Is Asking Why the Flu Vaccine Isn't Working
At a congressional hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight and Investigations in November 2015, lawmakers questioned federal officials about why more progress hasn't been made toward developing effective flu vaccines and treatments.
Witnesses from the CDC, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health, and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority were questioned, with most lawmakers expressing "frustration that the health agencies were not further along." As reported by STAT:29
"We are still developing flu vaccines with 1940s technology,' said Representative Tim Murphy, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the subcommittee. 'We need better testing to quickly learn of mutations.' And Representative Diana DeGette, of Colorado … showed her impatience with the group, noting that 'I've been pushing for 10 years to fix the system.'"
Even Uber Is Offering Free Flu Shots for You and 10 Friends
In November 2015, UberHEALTH advertised a one-day event in which they would deliver "wellness packs" for $10 to people in 35 US cities. And if you receive a wellness pack (it's unclear what a wellness pack contains), you can also request a free flu shot from a registered nurse – for you and up to 10 of your friends.30 Last year, during the company's first UberHEALTH pilot program, flu vaccines were requested at 2,378 sites, and nurses vaccinated 2,057 persons.31
Uber believes they're helping the public health by offering a convenient and simple way for people to get the flu vaccine – but what they're really doing is furthering the misconception that getting a flu shot is the "best" way to prevent influenza. Your immune system health is, in fact, the most powerful predictor of whether or not you'll get sick this flu season or anytime during the year… with influenza or one of the hundreds of other influenza-like illnesses going around.
Flu Prevention Tips: Diet, Vitamin D, Gut Health, and More
I firmly believe that optimizing your vitamin D levels is the single most important and least expensive action you can take to help strengthen immune function and protect against getting sick during the flu season, and would STRONGLY urge you to have your vitamin D level monitored to confirm your levels are therapeutic at 50 to 70 ng/ml year-round.
Vitamin D is an important player in overall healthy immune function, but it's also an effective antimicrobial agent in its own right, producing 200 to 300 different antimicrobial peptides in your body that kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
A 2010 study32 that didn't get much widespread attention demonstrated the effectiveness of vitamin D as a preventive strategy against influenza. Children taking just 1,200 IUs of vitamin D3 per day, which is considered a low dose, were shown to be 42 percent less likely to come down with influenza.
Further, if your diet contains a lot of sugars, grains and processed foods, you're not doing your body any favors this flu season. Instead of giving your body the fuel it needs to function optimally, which means being healthy enough to fight off infectious viruses, you're giving it more toxic elements that it must overcome.
Most people don't realize that 80 percent of your immune system actually lies in your gastrointestinal tract. That's why controlling your sugar intake is crucial for optimizing your gut health and immune system function.
Additionally, making sure you're ingesting plenty of beneficial bacteria in the foods you eat (specifically fermented foods) is also crucial. In one study, 3- to 5-year-old children who received either a single strain or combination of beneficial bacteria called probiotics twice a day for six months had:33
- Reduced fever by 53 percent and 73 percent respectively
- Decreased coughing by 41 percent and 62 percent
- Reduced runny noses by 28 percent and 59 percent
- Reduced antibiotic use by 68 percent and 84 percent (which is a major gain in and of itself because antibiotics are vastly overused in children and also devastate your gut flora)
More Tips to Avoid Getting Sick
Proper sleep, stress management and regular exercise are also important influenza and flu-like illness preventers. It is actually a well-known fact that exercise improves the circulation of immune cells in your blood. The job of these cells is to neutralize pathogens throughout your body. The better these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system is at locating and defending against viruses and other pathogens that may otherwise opportunistically disable your immune system's defense mechanisms.
There are other factors that can come into play too, of course. The following guidelines will also act in concert to support your immune system and help you avoid getting sick:
- Take a High-Quality Source of Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats. Increase your intake of healthy and essential fats like the omega-3 found in krill oil, which is crucial for maintaining health. It is also vitally important to avoid damaged omega-6 oils (think vegetable oils) as it will seriously damage your immune response.
- Wash Your Hands. Washing your hands will decrease your likelihood of spreading a virus to your nose, mouth, or other people. Be sure you don't use antibacterial soap for this – antibacterial soaps are completely unnecessary, and they cause far more harm than good. Instead, identify a simple toxin-free soap that you can switch your family to.
- Tried-and-True Hygiene Measures. In addition to washing your hands regularly, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, ideally with the crook of your elbow (to avoid contaminating your hands). If possible, avoid close contact with those who are sick and, if you are sick, avoid close contact with those who are well.
- Use Natural Immune-Boosters. Examples include oil of oregano and garlic, both of which offer effective protection against bacteria, viruses, and protozoa in your body. And unlike pharmaceutical antibiotics, they do not appear to lead to resistance.
- Avoid Hospitals. I'd recommend you stay away from hospitals unless you're having an emergency and need expert medical care, as hospitals are prime breeding grounds for infections of all kinds. The best place to get recover from illness that is not life threatening is usually in the comfort of your own home.