Flu Vaccine Effective Until It's Not

Taking Flu Vaccine

Story at-a-glance -

  • A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory committee recommended against the use of FluMist live attenuated nasal spray vaccine
  • Data showed the nasal spray vaccine to be less effective than the inactivated vaccine, and in some cases showed it had zero effectiveness against certain flu virus strains
  • The CDC has claimed the nasal spray vaccine to be safe and effective for years and has heavily promoted its use to children and adults

By Dr. Mercola

Many Americans rely on information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — which is supposed to be the nation's leading health protection agency — to make important health decisions.

So when the agency suddenly flip-flops on a key health message, it's not only disconcerting but also dangerous.

For years the CDC has been making general and often misleading categorical statements that in order to stay healthy during the flu season, "the most important thing is for all people 6 months and older to get a flu vaccine every year."1

Although this is stated as fact, it's easily debatable, as a strong immune system — the result of leading a healthy lifestyle — is actually among your best defenses against getting sick or experiencing complications from viral infections like influenza.

Taking a closer look at the CDC's authoritative message to Americans, public health officials have also stated, as recently as the 2015 to 2016 flu season, that "both the nasal spray vaccine and the flu shot have been shown to be effective in children and adults.2

You'd be wise to take such statements with a grain of salt, as now a CDC advisory committee has recommended the widely used nasal spray influenza vaccine not be used during the upcoming flu season.3

CDC Reverses Their Advice, Says No to Nasal Flu Vaccine for 2016 to 2017 Flu Season

About one-third of flu vaccinations given to children in the U.S. are the nasal spray, which is often preferred by pediatricians because it's needle-free.

In recent years, both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) went so far as to say the live virus nasal spray version was the preferred vaccine for healthy children ages 2 to 8 because research showed it worked a little better for them than the inactivated injected vaccine.

Children were given two doses to inhale initially, so theoretically, they could quickly build immunity.4 But it turned out the nasal spray flu vaccine was a bigger failure than injectable flu shots. During the 2014 to 2015 flu season, for instance, the nasal spray flu vaccine showed potentially no benefit for young children.5

Despite the failure, during the 2015 to 2016 flu season the CDC again stated that the nasal spray vaccine was effective in children and adults, and that "either vaccine is appropriate" (referring to either the nasal spray or inactivated flu shot) for people aged 2 through 49 years.6

This is in direct contrast to this year's advice, with the CDC panel now recommending against the nasal spray vaccine (brand name FluMist). The decision, which still has to be approved by CDC Director Tom Frieden, was based on recent data showing continued poor performance. As CNN reported:7

"During the [CDC advisory committee] hearing, Dr. Chris Ambrose of MedImmune [FluMist's maker] shared results from the company's 2015 to 2016 influenza vaccine effectiveness study, which found the FluMist quadrivalent vaccine to be 46 percent effective, compared with the flu shot's 65 percent effectiveness.

However, Dr. Brendan Flannery of the CDC presented data indicating that FluMist had zero effectiveness against one strain of flu."

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Can Live Virus Vaccines Transmit Disease?

While the CDC's decision against FluMist was based on lack of effectiveness, there are other important considerations when considering use of a live-virus vaccine.

The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine while the nasal spray contains live, albeit weakened (or attenuated), virus that is intended to stimulate the immune system to fight disease without causing clinical symptoms of illness.

However, when you get a live attenuated viral vaccine, you shed live vaccine-strain virus in your body fluids — just like when you get a viral infection and shed virus in your body fluids.

After getting a live-virus vaccine, you can shed and transmit vaccine-strain virus to other people, in whom it might cause serious complications.

Live attenuated viral vaccines also have the potential to affect the evolution of viruses, which are constantly recombining with each other, because vaccine-strain live viruses are released into the environment where further mutations can occur.8

How Accurate Are Vaccine Effectiveness Studies?

When health agencies state a vaccine's effectiveness rate, it's important to be aware that this may be incredibly difficult to gauge in the real world. Some researchers may rely on data from population-based electronic immunization registries to conduct vaccine effectiveness studies, for instance.

Yet, researchers found that what was stated in the registry often did not match up with records at doctors' offices, even when data was electronically transferred. There were discrepancies in the number of vaccinations received, the formulations given, the manufacturer and lot number of the vaccines and more.9

Challenges have also been identified when evaluating vaccine effectiveness using large cohort studies, which rely on data from a large group of people with a defining characteristic, such as being within a certain age range.

"No single set of definitions or analytical approach can address all possible biases," researchers explained.10

Studies on vaccine reactions may be equally flawed or at least misleading. In one CDC study, for instance, it was claimed that life-threatening anaphylaxis occurred in 33 confirmed cases out of more than 25 million vaccine doses.11

While the media touted the results as proof vaccines rarely cause serious reactions, this study only looked into one serious reaction. Rates of other serious side effects, such as encephalitis, meningitis, febrile seizures, brain damage, coma and death, for instance, were not discussed.

Meanwhile, the CDC study used electronic health data to determine rates of anaphylaxis following vaccination — data that, as mentioned, is often wrong.

Getting a Flu Shot Every Year May Increase Children's Likelihood of Getting the Flu

There are more questions than answers when it comes to manipulating the human immune system and attempting to stimulate artificial immunity using highly variable, rapidly mutating viruses like influenza.

While health officials continue to promote annual flu vaccination for virtually every man, woman and child, researchers have quietly released results showing that children who received an annual flu shot for a number of years were more likely to get the flu than children who had received a flu shot during the present season only.12

Previous research has also shown annual vaccination against influenza hampers the development of certain types of immunity in children.13 In other words, the seasonal flu vaccine may weaken children's immune systems and increase their chances of getting sick from influenza viruses not included in the vaccine.

If the flu shot being so highly promoted by the CDC might inadvertently be increasing children's risk of illness, you might think it would be a top area of research, but not in the U.S.

Since flu shots are already being recommended annually, health officials maintain that it would be "unethical" for researchers to conduct a study in the U.S. and not offer the shots to all (whether or not they may be having serious unknown adverse health consequences).14

CDC's Plan: If the Flu Shot Doesn't Work, Take Antiviral Flu Drugs

During flu seasons when the influenza vaccine turns out to be a poor match because it doesn't contain the type A or B influenza strains that are circulating and causing most cases of influenza, which happens quite often, the CDC has another trick up its sleeve: anti-viral flu drugs.

It sounds good in theory to take a medication that might stop influenza in its tracks, but the reality is much less convincing — the drugs are ineffective and potentially dangerous. The Cochrane Collaboration conducted a review of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and another anti-viral drug Relenza (zanamivir) that revealed:15

  • Both drugs shorten the duration of flu symptoms by less than a day (specifically, by just 16.8 hours)
  • Tamiflu did not affect the number of hospitalizations; Relenza trials did not record this data
  • The effects of the drugs on pneumonia and other flu complications were unreliably reported and included limitations in diagnostic criteria and problems with missing follow-ups on participants
  • Tamiflu was associated with nausea, vomiting, headaches, kidney problems and psychiatric events and may induce serious heart rhythm problems

Tamiflu and Relenza are part of a group of anti-influenza drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors, which work by blocking a viral enzyme that helps the influenza virus to invade cells in your respiratory tract.

The problem is that your nervous system also contains neuraminidase enzymes essential for proper brain functioning, and when blocked with these dangerous drugs, severe neurotoxicity may ensue (especially in the infants and children whose blood-brain barrier has not yet developed sufficiently).

Again, despite their questionable effectiveness and risks, the CDC heavily promotes their use, and even released a health alert in 2014 warning that drifted influenza viruses may result in diminished vaccine effectiveness.

So, in addition to still recommending the likely ineffective influenza vaccine, public health officials have also recommended starting anti-viral medication as soon as possible after illness onset — which would likely be before you've even received laboratory confirmation that you have an influenza infection!16

How to Stay Well During Flu Season

If you live in the U.S., flu season may be the last thing on your mind, but it's not too early to start making healthy changes to resist influenza and other viral or bacterial infections.. A healthy immune system is the key to avoiding complications from infections like influenza. If you have a healthy immune system and take commonsense approaches to healing if you do get sick, you should feel better again quickly and, in some cases, may not even know you were "sick."

Toward that end, if your diet contains a lot of refined sugars, grains and processed foods, you're not doing your body any favors. 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.

For instance, too many carbohydrates in the form of sugar and grains are damaging to your gut flora. Sugar is "fertilizer" for pathogenic bacteria, yeast and fungi that can set your immune system up for an easy assault by a respiratory virus. 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 immune system.

Additionally, making sure you're ingesting plenty of beneficial bacteria in the foods you eat (specifically fermented foods) is also crucial, as is optimizing and having your vitamin D level monitored to confirm your levels are at a therapeutic 50 to 70 nanograms per milliliter year-round.

I believe optimizing your vitamin D levels is one of the most potent preventive strategies available, followed by diet (including fermented foods to optimize your gut flora), stress relief, exercise and sleep. 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 and heal more quickly if you do get sick. You can also read my complete guide to fight the flu naturally here.

Take a High-Quality Source of Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats: increase your intake of essential fats omega-3s which are crucial for maintaining health. It is also vitally important to avoid damaged omega-6 oils (think vegetable oils), as 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 using synthetic chemicals for this — conventional antibacterial soaps are completely unnecessary, and they cause far more harm than good.

Instead, identify a simple mild soap that you can switch your family to. Avoid overwashing your hands, however, as this can lead to tiny cuts that allow an entryway for pathogens.

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 a broad spectrum of bacteria, viruses and protozoa in your body. And unlike pharmaceutical antibiotics, they do not appear to lead to resistance and the development of super germs.

Avoid Hospitals: I'd recommend you stay away from hospitals unless you're having an emergency and need immediate medical care, as hospitals are prime breeding grounds for infections of all kinds. The best place to recover from illness that is not life-threatening is usually in the comfort of your own home.