The call came from a dear friend. The minute we heard his voice we knew he was sick. His voice sounded scratchy and it only took him a second to confirm what we already suspected…he had the flu.
The caller just happens to be a prominent cardiologist at one of this country’s premier health institutions. He was more than a bit outraged that the flu shot his hospital required of its health professionals DID NOT WORK. He received his influenza vaccine early in the season, long enough for it to protect him against this year’s influenza viruses.
He felt betrayed. His first question was, “Why didn’t it do what it was supposed to do and keep me from getting so sick?”
The answer is surprisingly complicated. Despite all the encouragement by public health officials to get a flu shot, the evidence that such vaccinations actually prevent influenza in a statistically significant portion of the public is lacking. That comes as a great surprise to just about everyone, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and the public at large. Please do not take our word for this…or shoot the messengers. Review the scientific literature.
Actually, the Cochrane Collaboration has done this for you.
These are objective experts from around the world who have no vested interest in the outcome. Their job is to review the available science in an honest way, analyze it and share their findings so that the public will have a balanced understanding of the benefits and risks of the treatment in question.
The panel of reviewers assessed 75 of the very best studies of influenza vaccination and concluded that there are not adequate data to prove a flu shot will prevent sickness for people over the age of 65.
Part of the problem is that vaccine manufacturers have to guess many months ahead what viruses are likely to cause influenza during the coming season. Sometimes they guess right and sometimes they cannot predict how the viruses will mutate. If they are spot on and predict really well, they may be able to achieve an efficacy rate of 76%. In a bad year the efficacy may be as low as 16%. An analysis of the very best vaccine studies (randomized, placebo-controlled trials) revealed that the average efficacy over time is about 59%.
How good is the vaccine this year? Although we were reassured that the flu shot was a very good match this fall, we won’t know for sure until the data are collected and analyzed well after the flu season has passed. At the moment, though, we have heard that the influenza outbreak is bad and getting worse. A number of people who have been vaccinated (like our physician friend) have still come down with the flu.
Here are some stories posted to our website about past years:
“As a nurse I was forced to get a flu shot every year and in spite of this, I did have the flu a few times. Since retirement 6 years ago, I have not had a flu shot and refuse to get one and have not contracted the flu. I worked in a nursing home where every resident was given a flu shot and in bad flu years, they got sick anyway.”
“Had flu shot ten years ago and got flu 3 times that year. Have not had shots or flu since.”
“Every time I have gotten a flu shot I have gotten sick. The last time I took a flu shot was 2 or 3 years ago when the swine flu vaccine was mixed with the regular flu shot. That year I was sick for over a month and my doctor told me to never get a flu shot again. When I do not take a flu shot I do not get sick.”
Of course to be fair it is important to point out that these are just anecdotes. We have also received a fair number of reports like the following:
“For what it’s worth, I tell you this: I have taken a flu shot every year since the 1950’s and have yet to suffer from a case of the flu. I am now 85 years old.”
“Have been getting a flu vaccine yearly since the 70s and only had the flu once in the late 70s. I find getting enough sleep gives me a lot of immunity to diseases. Plus, I wash my hands a lot. I am a 68-year-old nurse.”
“Took the flu vaccine while working because it was mandatory. Got sick only one time after getting vaccinated.
“After retiring, my husband was coming down with the flu and I felt sick with fever. I raced to the doctor for a prescription for Tamiflu on two different occasions. Tamiflu stopped it both times. This oral medicine must be taken in the first 48 hours of onset to work.”
Speaking of Tamiflu (oseltamivir), this oral medicine was just approved by the FDA for treating young children. It was originally approved in 1999 for preventing the flu or shortening the duration of illness in adults. Subsequently it was approved for children one year old and up. Now, it has just gotten the green light for children under 12 months of age. Of course, dose is critical and needs to be carefully calculated based on weight. This can be more complicated that you would imagine. Here is a link to more information about this problem.
There is quite a bit of controversy about the effectiveness of Tamiflu. Some people swear that if they take this antiviral drug early enough, it can stop the flu in its tracks. Others say that it has barely noticeable benefits. It will be up to you and your health professional to determine whether Tamiflu is worth the expense and the possible side effects.
Tamiflu (Oseltamivir) Side Effects:
• Digestive upset, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea
• Psychological distress, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations
• Severe skin reactions, rash, redness (requires immediate medical attention!)
To learn more about what to do for upper respiratory tract infections, we suggest downloading ($2) our Guide to Colds, Coughs and the Flu. It contains information about the role of vitamin D in boosting the immune system and helping ward off the viruses that cause infection. You will also find more details about Tamiflu plus remedies for helping kids kick a cough, including thyme tea, dark chocolate, buckwheat honey, Concord grape juice and Vicks VapoRub on the bottom of the feet. There are also herbal approaches such as Andrographis paniculata from China. Here is a link to the Guide.
We would also like to hear your story. Please let us know if the flu shot has worked for you to prevent influenza or if you came down with an upper respiratory tract infection even with a vaccination on board. All comments welcome below.