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Is the Flu Vaccine Really ‘Working Well’ This Year?

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

effectiveness of flu vaccine

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to interim estimates, the overall adjusted effectiveness of the 2018-19 flu vaccine against all influenza virus infection associated with acute respiratory illness (ARI) needing medical attention was 47 percent
  • Among adults over 50, the vaccine had a mere 24 percent effectiveness against all influenza types, and an abysmal 8 percent against influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 infection, which was by far the most common type
  • Of all who came down with ARI, only 14 percent actually had influenza. In the vast majority of cases — 86 percent — their respiratory illness was caused by something other than an influenza virus
  • There are more than 200 viruses that cause influenza-like illness with identical symptoms as influenza, such as fever, headache, aches, pains, cough and runny nose. The flu vaccine does not prevent these illnesses
  • Research published last year found people who had received a flu shot and contracted influenza shed a greater amount of influenza viruses through their breath than unvaccinated people

The following referenced information contains opinion and perspective on a health topic related to vaccine science, policy, law or ethics that is being discussed in public forums, including in medical, law and other professional journals; newspapers, magazines and other print; broadcast and online media outlets; state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.

Readers are encouraged to go to the websites of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for the perspective of federal agencies responsible for vaccine research, development, regulation and policymaking, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for information on vaccine policymaking; to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for information on regulating vaccines for safety and effectiveness; and to National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for information on research and the development of new vaccines.

The World Health Organization has stated that “vaccine hesitancy” is one of the top 10 global public health threats.

According to interim estimates1 released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on February 15, 2019 — which uses data from 3,254 adults and children enrolled in the U.S. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network between November 23, 2018, and February 2, 2019 — the overall adjusted effectiveness of the 2018-19 flu vaccine against all influenza virus infection associated with acute respiratory illness (ARI) needing medical attention was 47 percent.

While the media has played this up as "good news,"2 and the CDC calls the results "encouraging,"3 the fact of the matter is the vaccine failed to offer any protection more than half of the time, and for adults over 50, it's more or less useless.

This Year's Flu Vaccine Is an Abysmal Failure for Those Over 50

Among children aged 6 months to 17 years, the 2018–19 seasonal flu vaccine had an average effectiveness of 61 percent.4 However, among adults over 50, which is the most vulnerable group, the vaccine had a mere 24 percent effectiveness against all influenza types, and an abysmal 8 percent against influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 infection, which was by far the most common type.

According to the CDC, the A(H1N1)pdm09 virus was responsible for 74 percent of all influenza A infections for which subtype information was available. What's more, the CDC notes that,5 "Among the 3,254 children and adults with ARI … a total of 465 (14 percent) tested positive for influenza virus by real time RT-PCR …"

In other words, of all the people who came down with acute respiratory illness, only 14 percent actually had confirmed influenza. In the vast majority of cases — 86 percent — their respiratory illness was associated with a viral or bacterial infection caused by something other than a type A or B influenza virus.

This is important to remember, as people have a tendency to jump to the conclusion that when they have influenza-like illness (ILI) symptoms they have influenza when, in fact, chances are the majority of the time they don't.

The influenza vaccine contains only three or four type A or B vaccine strain influenza viruses. Even if those vaccine strain viruses are a perfect match for influenza viruses that are circulating in a given flu season, the vaccine does not prevent the majority of other respiratory infections that are experienced by people. As noted by the Cochrane Collaboration:6

"Over 200 viruses cause ILI (influenza-like illness), which produces the same symptoms (fever, headache, aches, pains, cough and runny nose) as influenza. Without laboratory tests, doctors cannot distinguish between ILI and influenza because both last for days and rarely cause serious illness or death."

The 2017/2018 seasonal influenza vaccine's adjusted overall effectiveness for the U.S. was just 36 percent against influenza A and influenza B virus infection,7,8 and between 2005 and 2015, the flu vaccine's adjusted overall effectiveness was less than 50 percent more than half the time — with a low of only 10 percent in the 2004-05 season.9,10

It's difficult to find another example of where a commercial product can fail to work more than half the time and still be recommended and even mandated for children and adults.

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Obesity Is a Major Cause of Influenza Outbreaks and Vulnerability

In related news, research suggests widespread obesity may be a significant contributor to influenza outbreaks and general vulnerability, as obesity makes you shed and transmit virus for a longer period of time, thereby increasing the opportunity for spreading infections to others. According to this study,11 published in the September, 2018 issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases:

"[O]besity increases the risk of severe complications and death from influenza virus infection, especially in elderly individuals … Symptomatic obese adults were shown to shed influenza A virus 42 percent longer than nonobese adults … no association was observed with influenza B virus shedding duration. Even among paucisymptomatic and asymptomatic adults, obesity increased the influenza A shedding duration by 104 percent."

Aubree Gordon, Ph.D., senior author from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told reporters,12 "This is the first real evidence that obesity might impact more than just disease severity. It might directly impact transmission as well."

Additional research is underway to analyze whether influenza virus shed over longer periods is still equally infectious. The answer here, of course, would be to normalize your weight and strengthen your immune function. You can find more information about these strategies in the hyperlinked articles.

Flu Vaccine Still Allows Transmission of Disease

Obesity isn't the only thing that might contribute to influenza outbreaks. A study13 published in the journal PNAS January 18, 2018, found infectious influenza viruses in the exhaled breath of people who had gotten seasonal flu shots and contracted influenza. Those vaccinated two seasons in a row had an even greater viral load of shedding influenza A viruses. According to the authors:

"Self-reported vaccination for the current season was associated with a trend toward higher viral shedding in fine-aerosol samples; vaccination with both the current and previous year's seasonal vaccines, however, was significantly associated with greater fine-aerosol shedding in unadjusted and adjusted models.

In adjusted models, we observed 6.3 times more aerosol shedding among cases with vaccination in the current and previous season compared with having no vaccination in those two seasons … The association of vaccination and shedding was significant for influenza A but not for influenza B infections …

Finding infectious virus in 39 percent of fine-aerosol samples collected during 30 minutes of normal tidal breathing in a large community-based study of confirmed influenza infection clearly establishes that a significant fraction of influenza cases routinely shed infectious virus … into aerosol particles small enough to remain suspended in air and present a risk for airborne transmission …

The association of current and prior year vaccination with increased shedding of influenza A might lead one to speculate that certain types of prior immunity promote lung inflammation, airway closure and aerosol generation …

If confirmed, this observation, together with recent literature suggesting reduced protection with annual vaccination, would have implications for influenza vaccination recommendations and policies."

Mounting Body of Research Questions Validity of Annual Flu Vaccination as a Public Health Measure

On the whole, there's really very little evidence to suggest annual flu vaccinations are a good way to combat influenza and save lives. On the contrary, the medical literature is burgeoning with studies questioning the validity of this public health measure. For example, studies have shown that:

With each successive annual flu vaccination, the theoretical protection from the vaccine can diminish14 A 2012 Chinese study15 found a child's chances of contracting a respiratory infection after getting the seasonal flu shot rose more than fourfold, and research published in 2014 concluded that resistance to influenza-related illness in persons over age 9 years in the U.S. was greatest among those who had NOT received a flu shot in the previous five years.16

More recent research suggests the reason seasonal flu shots become less protective with each dose has to do with "original antigenic sin." Here, they found that influenza vaccine failed to elicit a strong immune response in most participants,17 which was explained as follows:18

"What's at play seems to be a phenomenon known as 'original antigenic sin.' Flu vaccines are designed to get the immune system to produce antibodies that recognize the specific strains of the virus someone may encounter in a given year.

These antibodies target unique sites on the virus, and latch onto them to disable it. Once the immune system already has antibodies to target a given site on the virus, it preferentially reactivates the same immune cells the next time it encounters the virus. This is efficient for the immune system, but the problem is that the virus changes ever so slightly from year to year.

The site the antibodies recognize could still be there, but it may no longer be the crucial one to neutralize the virus. Antibodies produced from our first encounters with the flu, either from vaccines or infection, tend to take precedence over ones generated by later inoculations. So even when the vaccine is a good match for a given year, if someone has a history with the flu, the immune response to a new vaccine could be less protective."

71 people have to be vaccinated for a single case of influenza to be avoided, and vaccination has "little or no appreciable effect on hospitalizations or number of working days lost" — In its 2014 meta-analysis19 of the available research on inactivated influenza vaccines, the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed evidence related to influenza and influenza-like illness (ILI) that people experience during flu seasons, concluding that:

"Injected influenza vaccines probably have a small protective effect against influenza … as 71 people would need to be vaccinated to avoid one influenza case … Vaccination may have little or no appreciable effect on hospitalizations … or number of working days lost."

The flu vaccine can increase your risk of contracting other, more serious influenza infections — Canadian researchers found that people who had received the seasonal flu vaccine in 2008, on average, had twice the risk of getting sick with the pandemic H1N1 "swine flu" in 2009 compared to those who did not receive a flu shot the previous year.20

These findings were replicated in a 2014 ferret study.21 Similarly, a 2009 U.S. study compared health outcomes for children between age 6 months and 18 years who did and did not get annual flu shots and found that children who received influenza vaccinations had a three times' higher risk of influenza-related hospitalization, with asthmatic children at greatest risk.22

The concept of heterologous immunity may account for these findings. Heterologous immunity refers to the concept that your immune system is directional, and that once you've encountered a pathogen, your body is better equipped to fight pathogens that are similar. However, in the case of influenza vaccines, this directionality appears to work against you.

By learning to fend off certain influenza virus strains contained in the vaccine, your immune system becomes less able to fend off other influenza strains and disease-causing pathogens. As noted in a 2014 paper on heterologous immunity:23

"Immunity to previously encountered viruses can alter responses to unrelated pathogens … Heterologous immunity … may be beneficial by boosting protective responses. However, heterologous reactivity can also result in severe immunopathology. The key features that define heterologous immune modulation include alterations in the CD4 and CD8 T cell compartments and changes in viral dynamics and disease progression."

In other words, while influenza vaccine may offer some level of protection against the three or four viral influenza strains included in the vaccine, depending on whether the vaccine used is trivalent or quadrivalent, it may simultaneously diminish your ability to ward off infection by other influenza strains and types of viral or bacterial infections.

Heterologous immunity is also addressed in a 2013 paper,24 which notes that "vaccines modulate general resistance," and "have nonspecific effects on the ability of the immune system to handle other pathogens." Researchers stated that:

"[O]ur current perception of the immune system is … simplistic. It was, to a large extent, shaped in the 1950s with the formulation of the clonal selection hypothesis.

This line of thinking has emphasized the adaptive immune system and the specific antigen recognition and specific memory, which have been crucial in vaccine development, perhaps at the expense of examining cross-reactive features of the immune system as well as the memory capacity of the innate immune system.

Although tens of thousands of studies assessing disease-specific, antibody-inducing effects of vaccines have been conducted, most people have not examined whether vaccines have nonspecific effects because current perception excludes such effects."

Flu vaccine doesn't work well in statin users — Statin drugs may interfere with your immune system's ability to respond to the influenza vaccine.25,26 After vaccination, antibody concentrations were 38 percent to 67 percent lower in statin users over the age of 65, compared to nonstatin users of the same age.27 Antibody concentrations were also reduced in younger people who took statins.

Flu vaccine does not prevent most types of influenza — Independent scientific reviews have also concluded that flu shots have only a "modest effect in reducing influenza symptoms and working days lost," and have no effect on complications of influenza.28,29

Moreover, the influenza vaccine fails to prevent influenza-like illness associated with other types of viruses responsible for about 80 percent of all respiratory or gastrointestinal infections during any given flu season.30,31,32,33,34

Vaccination does not lower mortality in the elderly — Research35 published in 2006 analyzed influenza-related mortality among the elderly population in Italy associated with increased vaccination coverage between 1970 and 2001. Researchers found that after the 1980s, there was no corresponding decline in excess deaths, despite rising vaccine uptake.

According to the authors, "our study challenges current strategies to best protect the elderly against mortality, warranting the need for better controlled trials with alternative vaccination strategies."

Another 2006 study36 showed that, even though seniors vaccinated against influenza had a reduced risk of dying during flu season compared to unvaccinated seniors, those who were vaccinated were also even more unlikely to die before the flu season ever started.

This finding has since been attributed to a "healthy user effect," which suggests that older people who get vaccinated against influenza are already healthier and, therefore, less likely to die anyway, whereas those who do not get the shot have suffered a decline in health in recent months.

"New and improved" flu shot also fails to protect seniors — The Flucelvax vaccine introduced during the 2017-2018 flu season is grown in dog kidney cells rather than chicken eggs. Touted as a new-and-improved flu shot that would protect more people, Food and Drug Administration research found no significant difference between it and the conventional flu shot in protecting seniors.

While flu vaccines overall had a 24 percent effectiveness in preventing flu-related hospitalizations in people aged 65 and older, the Flucelvax vaccine had an effectiveness rate of only 26.5 percent in that population.37

Flu vaccine does not lessen influenza severity — While health officials claim getting a flu shot will lessen your symptoms should you contract influenza, a 2017 study38 by French researchers assessing the veracity of that claim found it to be false. Looking at data from vaccinated and unvaccinated elderly patients diagnosed with influenza, all they found was a reduction in initial headache complaints among those who had been vaccinated. According to the authors:

"Compared to nonvaccinated influenza patients, those who had been vaccinated had a slightly reduced maximum temperature and presented less frequently with myalgia, shivering and headache. In stratified analyses, the observed effect was limited to patients infected with A(H3) or type B viruses.

After adjusting by age group, virus (sub)type and season, the difference remained statistically significant only for headache, which was less frequent among vaccinated individuals."

Flu vaccine is associated with serious disability — Permanent disability such as paralysis from Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is a risk you need to take into account each time you get a flu shot. As early as 2003, the CDC recognized the flu vaccine causes an excess of 1.7 cases of GBS per 1 million people vaccinated.39

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows GBS is the top injury for which people are receiving financial compensation through the federal vaccine injury compensation program (VICP), and the flu vaccine is now the most common vaccine cited by adults seeking a vaccine injury compensation award.40

Shoulder damage is another risk, caused by improper injection technique.41,42,43 Shoulder injury related to vaccine administration (SIRVA) includes chronic pain, limited range of motion, nerve damage, frozen shoulder and rotator cuff tears, and is typically the result of the injection being administered too high on the arm. This risk is particularly high when people get vaccinated outside of a doctor's office or other clinical setting.

Many people getting flu shots in a public setting like a grocery store or pharmacy simply roll up their sleeves or pull down the top of their shirt, exposing only the upper part of their deltoid, thereby increasing the risk of getting the injection in the joint space rather than the muscle.

GBS and SIRVA were both added to the Vaccine Injury Table of the VICP in 2017.44,45 By adding those vaccine complications to the table, vaccine-related GBS and SIRVA cases brought before the "Vaccine Court" in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., will be more likely to receive federal vaccine injury compensation.

In this lecture, immunologist Tetyana Obukhanych, Ph.D., author of "Vaccine Illusion: How Vaccination Compromises Our Natural Immunity and What We Can Do to Regain Our Health," explains how vaccines damage your immune function, which can result in any number of adverse health effects.

Why Pregnant Women Should Avoid the Flu Vaccine

In recent years, pregnant women have been told to get a pertussis-containing Tdap vaccination and an influenza vaccination during each pregnancy.46 According to federal guidelines, the flu shot can be given during any trimester.47 This is irresponsible public health policy, as there's a shocking lack of scientific studies to confirm the safety of that policy for mother and child.48

For starters, drug companies did not test the safety and effectiveness of giving influenza vaccine to pregnant women before the vaccines were licensed in the U.S.,49,50 and data on inflammatory and other biological responses to vaccination during pregnancy that could affect pregnancy and birth outcomes is still lacking.51

As far as the scientific evidence is concerned, it's still unknown whether the influenza vaccine can cause fetal harm or affect your reproductive capacity,52 which is why the vaccine manufacturer product inserts state that the influenza vaccine should only be given to a pregnant woman if it's "clearly needed."

Pregnant women are essentially expected to stick to recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and medical trade associations out of sheer faith, since vaccine recommendations are not based on weighty scientific evidence. In fact, health statistics suggest there's something very wrong going on in the U.S., seeing how we have one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world.

As of last year, global rates for maternal mortality had fallen by half — except in the U.S., where the number of women who die from pregnancy-related complications has significantly increased.53 Infant mortality rates are also far higher in the U.S. than in any of the other 27 wealthy countries surveilled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).54

Could this be related to the fact that American babies and pregnant women receive the greatest number of vaccines? While there's no research clearly proving this, there's also no evidence to refute the hypothesis that excessive vaccinations may be part of the problem.

While limited, there is at least some evidence that getting the flu vaccine during pregnancy may put that pregnancy at risk. Initial suspicions were raised in 2009, when reports of miscarriage following administration of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine started emerging.55

Dozens of women claimed they lost their babies just hours or days after getting the vaccine, which had not been tested on pregnant women or, if it was, the evidence was never published. Not surprisingly, these instances were passed off as coincidental. After all, miscarriages do happen, and for any number of different reasons.

Then, a CDC-funded study56 published in September 2017, found that women who had received the 2009 pandemic swine flu (pH1N1) vaccine containing influenza shot two years in a row were indeed more likely to suffer miscarriage within the following 28 days.

While most of the miscarriages occurred during the first trimester, several also took place in the second trimester. The median fetal term at the time of miscarriage was seven weeks. In all, 485 pregnant women aged 18 to 44, who had a miscarriage during the flu seasons of 2010/2011 and 2011/2012, were compared to 485 pregnant women who carried their babies to term.

Of the 485 women who miscarried, 17 had been vaccinated twice in a row — once in the 28 days prior to vaccination and once in the previous year. For comparison, of the 485 women who had normal pregnancies, only four had been vaccinated two years in a row. Commenting on the study, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Amanda Cohn, CDC adviser for vaccines stated:57

"I think it's really important for women to understand that this is a possible link, and it is a possible link that needs to be studied and needs to be looked at over more [flu] seasons. We need to understand if it's the flu vaccine, or is this a group of women [who received flu vaccines] who were also more likely to have miscarriages."

Despite those findings, the CDC has not made any changes to its recommendation for pregnant women.

Vitamin D Substantially Outperforms Flu Vaccine

Is the flu vaccine really the most effective way to protect yourself against influenza, despite being less than 50 percent effective overall? Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the excellent track record of vitamin D for preventing respiratory infections.

For example, a 2017 scientific review58 of 25 randomized controlled trials found that vitamin D supplementation cut rates of acute respiratory infections among all participants. Overall, the number needed to treat (NNT) was 33, meaning that for every 33 people taking a vitamin D supplement, one person was spared from acute respiratory infection. (And, remember, the NNT for the flu vaccine preventing a single case of influenza is 71.59)

Among those with severe vitamin D deficiency at baseline, the NNT was 4. Those with blood levels below 10 ng/mL, which is a serious deficiency state, cut their risk of infection by half, while people with higher vitamin D levels reduced their risk by about 10 percent.

According to this international research team, vitamin D supplementation could prevent more than 3.25 million cases of cold and flu each year in the U.K. alone.60 In my view, optimizing your vitamin D levels is one of the absolute best strategies available to prevent respiratory illness of all kinds.

+ Sources and References