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How Effective Is A Flu Shot?

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Flu season is right around the corner. That's why the CDC (Centers for Disease Prevention and Control) "recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease." But how good is the flu shot when it comes to protecting against influenza or the complications of this viral infection?

The CDC's answer to this question is ambiguous at best. Our premier public health organization says that effectiveness of the vaccine "can range widely from season to season." If the match between the shot and the circulating viruses is bad, "It's possible that no benefit from the vaccination may be observed." If the match is very good, "substantial benefits" in preventing flu are observed. What does that really mean?

A brand new study by a leading infectious disease epidemiologist casts more doubt on the benefits of the flu vaccine. Michael Osterholm, PhD, M.P.H., is a prominent public health scientist. He and his colleagues reviewed 5,707 influenza articles in the medical literature that were published between Jan. 1, 1967 and Feb. 15, 2011 (The Lancet Infectious Diseases, online Oct 26, 2011). From that enormous number they narrowed their analysis down to 31 of the absolute best studies.

Of those top-notch investigations, there were 10 randomised, controlled trials that could be analyzed for overall efficacy. What Dr. Osterholm and his colleagues found was that together, the benefit was 59%. In other words, 41% of the people who got a flu vaccine experienced no protection against influenza.

In our opinion that's disappointingly low. If your toaster only toasted your bread a little more than half the time you would demand your money back. Perhaps even more disheartening is the observation that there were no good trials for children between the ages of 2 and 17 or adults over the age of 65. Those are precisely the groups that are most vulnerable to complications from influenza.

This isn't the first big study to suggest that the flu vaccine leaves a lot to be desired. An analysis in the Journal of Infectious Diseases (Jan. 15, 2010) concluded that when it comes to senior citizens: "the 'effectiveness' of the vaccine is in great part due to the selection of healthier individuals for vaccination, rather than due to true effectiveness of the vaccine" (Journal of Infectious Diseases, Jan. 15, 2010).

Even healthy younger people don't have fewer sick days, shorter hospital stays or fewer deaths from influenza if they get vaccinated (British Medical Journal, Oct. 28, 2006).

Questions also persist about the benefits of flu shots for babies and toddlers under two. Although they are more vulnerable to influenza complications, the data suggest that most flu vaccines are not terribly effective for these young ones (Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews, April 16, 2008).

The authors of the most recent study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases call for improved vaccinations. We couldn't agree more. It is sad that after so many years we still lack a highly effective flu shot.

What can people do while we wait for something better? We think that at this time of year vitamin D supplementation makes a lot of sense. Grandmothers all over the world knew that in the fall and winter they needed to encourage their children and grandchildren to take cod liver oil. They didn't know why, but they frequently dosed the family with foul-tasting cod liver oil, which contained vitamin D as well as omega-3 fatty acids. This was especially true in northern countries like Scandinavia where sunlight is in short supply at this time of year.

Research now suggests that the grandmothers were on to something. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (June, 2011) concluded that there is a strong relationship between vitamin D levels, respiratory infections and lung function. An article published in Epidemiology and Infection concluded that "Vitamin D deficiency predisposes children to respiratory infections...An interventional study showed that vitamin D reduces the incidence of respiratory infections in children." The same authors concluded in the journal Alternative Medicine Reviews that "Theoretically, pharmacological doses of vitamin D may produce enough of the naturally occurring antibiotic cathelicidin to cure common viral respiratory infections, such as influenza and the common cold, but such a theory awaits further science."

So science is beginning to catch up with grandma. The doctor could also prescribe an antiviral drug such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), amantadine, rimantadine or zanamivir (Relenza) to help some people recover from influenza faster than they normally would.

Ultimately, we do need a better influenza vaccine. In the meantime, though, there are some things that may help you avoid the flu. Wash your hands religiously. Consider every surface you touch when you are out in public a possible source of flu virus--that includes gasoline pump handles, ATM buttons and banisters. Keep your fingers out of your eyes and nose, no matter how good a job you do washing your hands.

If you have any question about vitamin D, you can get a blood test for 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Keep your levels above 20 ng/ml. Some health experts recommend levels above 30 ng/ml at this time of year. If flu is widespread in your community and you start to feel ill, ask your MD about a rapid flu test and inquire if a prescription is warranted for one of the antiviral medications.

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It is true 59% is not as good as everyone may like but it is a lot better than 0%. If you don't get a flu shot you are 100% sure not to be protected. I got my flu shot and will continue to do so in the future.

It's one thing that the flu shot is helpful only about half the time. My question is, can it be HARMFUL? I have heard that the flu shot is associated with Guillone Barre, which is a terrible neurological disorder from which recovery is dismal. Could you please comment on the side effects of the vaccine??

surprised you think just above 20 for vit D is enough when so many dr's, and others, are pushing for way over 30 or more.

any thoughs on that?

I agree. I'll take my chances with a vaccination.

My question is about the complications from flu, which are more often the cause of real problems. Pneumonia is a frequent complication and there is a vaccine for that. Is it effective, especially in light of the different strains of pneumonia? Are there side effects? Does it make more sense to get that vaccine rather than the flu vaccine?
Thank you.

I'll continue to take my chances of NOT getting the vaccine. Haven't had the vaccine yet and have not had the flu. I wash my hands and keep them out of my face. I've always felt this was a lot of hype and just one more way pharmaceutical companies could increase their bottom line. Along with pushing a whole lot of other worthless medications. Medicine is a good thing, but it is also a scam half the time.

I, too, am concerned about the harm a flu shot might do, especially for children and the elderly. I also wonder why they are still putting the H1N1 into the vaccine. I am allergic to eggs, and even my doctor said I should not have the shot for that reason. I regularly take a Vitamin D3 test and take the supplement accordingly. My present Vitamin D3 level is 45.5 ng/mL. The scale is 32.0-100.0 ng/mL.

Presently, I take 3,000 IU per day. I also try to get as much sunshine as I can, even in the winter. Since I have been taking what once would have been considered massive amount of vitamin D, I have not had the flu--not even a cold. I believe most doctors are dedicated to helping us, but new information comes in so fast that we can't expect them to know it all. I believe we are, ultimately, responsible for our own health and, as with most things, this takes time and effort.

What about a study of those who, like me, rarely get the flu, get it mildly if ever, AND never get flu shots? (I suppose I should knock wood when saying this, but it's worked for me all my 61 years.)

So my question is, to keep your vitamin D level above 20 ng/ml, what would the daily dosage be?

I read from a reliable source that the flu shot at its best covers only 20% of flu-like illnesses. Since it is only 59% effective anyway, why not spend the time and resources doing things which boosts the immune system. Those measures covered in this article plus improved diet, good sleep, avoiding toxics, and exercise will go a long way towards keeping a person well during flu season. The bonus is these will improve a person's overall health which a flu shot will never do.

I stopped getting the flu shot after discovering that I was becoming sick with a bad cold after receiving it. I have not had the flu in many years, but do take plenty of vitamin D (2,000 IU per day) as recommended by my doctor. Has anyone else found they get sick after having the flu shot?

While they may lead you to believe the efficacy is 59%, how would you react if you found out the actual number is only 1.5%? do you know how the statistics are manipulated to achieve that number?

So where does the media get "60% effective?"
This is called "massaging the numbers," and it's an old statistical trick that the vaccine industry (and the pharmaceutical industry) uses over and over again to trick people into thinking their useless drugs actually work.

First, you take the 2.73% in the control group who got the flu, and you divide that into the 1.18% in the treatment group who got the flu. This gives you 0.43.

You can then say that 0.43 is "43% of 2.73," and claim that the vaccine therefore results in a "57% decrease" in influenza infections. This then becomes a "57% effectiveness rate" claim.

So when the media (or your doctor, or pharmacist, or CDC official) says these vaccines are "60% effective," what they really mean is that you would have to inject 100 adults to avoid the flu in just 1.5 of them.

Or, put another way, flu vaccines do nothing in 98.5% of adults.

But you've probably already noticed that the mainstream media won't dare print this statistical revelation. They would much rather mislead everybody into the utterly false and ridiculous belief that flu vaccines are "60% effective," whatever that means.

>In other words, 41% of the people who got a flu vaccine experienced no protection against influenza.

Not sure what it was exactly that Dr. Osterholm, et al, discovered. What I know from other sources is that some years, the vaccine is 90+% effective, and other years, the flu strains that arrive in my part of the world don't match those I was vaccinated against. Over 10 years, this could come down to a 59% benefit, but it's really 90% half the time, and 19% the other half. (I'm making up these numbers for the sake of argument.)

I also read recently that the flu vaccine is less effective in fat people, BMI > 25. Your precis of the study does not mention whether this factor was considered. A widely-reported 35% overweight rate across the US population would just about account for a 59% effectiveness rate in the flu vaccine. Perhaps those of us who fall into that 35% simply need more of the stuff.

Regardless, if 59% of the people are protected, that DOES reduce my chances of coming in contact with them that aren't.

The analogy with the toaster fails once you realize that you have to pick the desired "darkness" setting approximately 6 months ahead of the desired toasting date, and you don't have any say in the thickness of the bread you get in the morning you want to make toast.

My doctor has convinced me to start getting a flu shot. I took one last year, for the first time in several, as the old ones gave me an asthma attack--and I'm NOT allergic to eggs: I have chickens and eat eggs regularly! I got one last week, and had a mild asthma attack, even though last year's did not.

I'm in Texas, and outside a lot year round, so vitamin D is probably not a problem for me! I haven't had the flu in 5 years, and very few colds, too. (I mostly get a cold if I'm really stressing about something!)

I am a senior and have received the flu shot for several years. This news is disappointing and also, this year I think I had a reaction to the shot. Shaky feeling in arms and legs immediately after, feeling very ill for the remainder of the day, recovered by the next day.

My doctor did not think it could be related to the shot but I spoke to two others since than that had the same reaction. I am aware that the vaccine is the same as last year but after this experience, I will be hesitant to get one next year.

I had the flu shot this year for the first time... age 68. I haven't had the flu my adult life, even when kids were young and flu/sick but since I have some health issues, thought I would get it. Felt bad for over 36 hours and probably won't get another. Now I'm confronted with do I get the pneumonia vaccination?

I am 70 and have turned down the flu shot for the past 5 yrs, and only got it sporadically before that. I have not had an episode of the flu since my teens, and have not even had a cold in over 10 yrs. I wash my hands frequently and take Vit D3 regularly. The father of a friend developed encephalitis after a flu shot and was never the same again in terms of mental function. I'll take my chances without the flu or pneumonia shot.

I got a flu shot at my local drug store. I spent the next week coughing and sneezing and without much energy. I think I will try another way next year.

My young children got sick with flu like symptoms after getting their flu shots previously. I distinctively remember the year of swine flu they were sick for weeks after their H1N1 shots. This year again my older child (now 5) was sick the same day after getting his flu shots during his annual checkup. So I am going to opt out for my younger one (3 years old) this year. Not sure if it's just coincidences, but I am no longer willing to take any chances!

Just curious if any other parents here have similar experiences?

Last Flu Shot I had was when I was practicing Nursing in the ICU.... I got so sick w/ flu symptoms afterward, that will be the last shot I ever get! Flu or other, no more!

Why don't you recommend cod liver oil rather than a vitamin D tablet as vitamins outside the context of the food they come in are also being called into question. Thanks for sending out the elert. On the two times I didn't get a flu shot, I did get the flu. I guess I am part of the happy inoculated 51% -- even if it is a placebo effect, it works for me.

Vitamin D is GREAT! When it is made by your body, or at least consumed... If you take a Vit D pill, you are getting a 100% manufactured (synthetic) form, probably made by BASF or another Chemical company... Get out in the sun, Consume Cod Liver Oil, Eggs, Salmon, Tuna, Catfish, and Beef Liver are all great sources of natural Vitamin D, especially important if you take a Statin Drug, which blocks your production of Vitamin D, along with Cholesterol production....

The amount of D3 needed varies greatly. Some need only 2-3,000 and others need five or six times that daily. Everybody metabolize things differently.

I can always stop a cold in its tracks by taking elderberry syrup, and I think it may very likely stop, or at least greatly ease, the flu. Elderberries have proven anti-viral substances.

I cannot believe you ask THAT question. NO matter how you disguise cod liver oil with
flavors, it tastes disgusting unless one has absolutely no tastebuds and never burps!!!!
Progress is good, and so are D3 pills!

Crandreww, in theory you are right. In practice it doesn't fly. Every body is different.

Some people simply don't make D from the sun. I am one of them. Three sessions a week for a total of 20 minutes midday session did not raise my level above 21. I live in the South West US so we do get sun.

Even 12,000 iu of vitamin D3 didn't get my level above 40. Taking D3 tablets does work.

For most of my life, (I am now 57) I have gotten violently ill with colds, flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia every year, at least twice a year, until 14 years ago I began to get a yearly flu shot, and I had a pneumonia shot once, so far, because they last for years. I still have gotten colds and sinusitis, although not as severe, but I have not had the flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia in 14 years. And I have a weakened immune system due to chronic illnesses.

When I began to receive the flu shots, it was on my doctor's insistence because of my health conditions. Now, I don't believe this is just a coincidence. I believe the shots has has a huge beneficial effect for me. My older brother on the other hand, got his first flu shot last year. He says he will never get another because he got so sick afterwards. He has been sick for years and has flare ups of his condition quite often, so I feel this was coincidence for him, but because a friend of his said it happened to him, I can't convince him to get one this year.

My sister, like myself has had favorable results after she started getting hers a few years ago. So, good or bad for other folks, I can't agree or dispute, I just know it certainly works for me, and although I haven't as yet had mine for this year, I WILL be getting it soon.

F.M., I hear you! While growing up my brothers and I got everything that came along. Had strep throat every Christmas vacation for five years straight!

Now I have not had a cold or flu since spring of '85. What is different with me now?

I got tested for allergies and changed my diet and some things in my environment firstly, then my new Dr. recommended I take vitamin C several times a day. Then when research came out about vitamin D he had me tested and then started on a D3 supplement.

Flu shots? No way! I had to take them when I was in the military and got sick every time from them. I haven't had a flu shot in 35 years!

Is it better to take cod liver oil to get your omega 3 than trying to find a supplement that really has enough true omega 3? As kids we were dosed up with cod liver oil, sulfur and molasses, assifedita (not sure if I spelled that right), and my families own special mix of a another "cough medicine".

We were never sick after we got over having all of the usual childhood diseases--
measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, and chickenpox. We had them all, but the "old folks" had remedies for those also. It's too bad they are no longer around. I've tried to pass them on but young people don't want to listen. Yes, we were vaccinated for all.

I'm a 62 year old male and I'd like to share my last experience with the flu shot. In 2009, within four hours of getting the flu shot I developed flu-like symptoms and some other odd symptoms over a 14-hour span from onset. Here's the timeline:

02:00 PM Flu shot
06:00 PM Face flushed; accelerated heart rate; suspected higher BP
07:45 PM Went to bed
10:00 PM Chills, fever, body aches (including groin-to-foot shooting pain upon urination)
12:00 AM Headache onset
02:00 AM Fever and chills reduced; headache and body aches continue
05:00 AM Chills, fever, body aches gone, but headache continues
06:00 AM Excedrin provided headache relief within an hour
08:00 AM Odd medicinal smell with urination

Think I've been back to get another flu shot? No way!

If I could be sure that any flu would be gone within 18 hours and one bout of headache, I probably wouldn't be taking the flu shot either. Problem is, my history indicates that real flu is the same, over at least 5-7 days, plus another week of chasing down the secondary problems that all too often follow.

The rabies vaccination, plus immunoglobulin, knocked me flat. Less so than rabies itself, I'm sure, or the infections you can get from dog bites. Ditto a recent tetanus shot, which gave me pretty horrible dreams. Don't want to think about the kind of dreams I'd get from the real infection.


I did a lot of research on this for myself. 20 and above prevents gross bone diseases like rickets and osteomalacia in most people but most labs and hospitals think that having it above 30 is better. That is VERY mainstream and not at all "new" or out there... my doc is very conservative and prefers 30.

It is SAFE to have it up to 100 I've read. The lab values for "normal" on my hospital test say "30-80" for these units.

Many researchers think in fact that Higher than 30 is better. The values and RDA are based on preventing bone problems before science knew that vit D also functions as a hormone. It is looking like you need more than 30, some say, to fulfill all it's uses including as an immune regulator.

Almost everyone has to take a lot more Vit D than the RDA to get values up. Myself, to get mine to 63--smack in my hospitals normal range.... I personally need to take 4000mg per day. I have titrated it and on 3000 mine is only 34 and my doc wanted it higher. Yet she was not comfortable with me taking more than the conservative 2000 that AMA says is safe. I pointed out I could not follow both her advice to get it up and to take only 2000mgs per day. She saw my point and agrees that the blood value justifies whatever you need to take within reason to get to it.

The year H1N1 went around that you remember your kids sick after vaccine:

The vaccine for that flu first came out at the exact peak of the pandemic (remember pandemic does not mean severity it means how common it is), later than they would have liked. That was the point that the very MOST people around your kids were either sick with flu, carrying the flu (to spread) but asymptomatic, or incubating the flu before they later got sick. Flu was around, and children were by far most susceptible to that particular flu.

Flu incubates for a number of days, and in kids they can be carriers for a week after they recover.

It takes 2 weeks for immunity from the flu shot to develop.

If only ONE Of your kids was exposed to ONE person in their crowded classroom who was incubating, had, or was recovering from the flu within those two weeks... which seems quite reasonably possible doesn't it? They could have easily caught it, and brought it home to all.

The association you see for THAT year time was could theoretically be... as you say.."get flu shot... get the flu" for your kids or "maximum peak of flu germs around...get flu".

But people OFTEN make the mistake of thinking it could ONLY be the first and FORGET about the second. Maybe because they forget that flu shots don't take effect right away.

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