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.”
K.J.O
++++++++++++++++++++++
“Had flu shot ten years ago and got flu 3 times that year. Have not had shots or flu since.”
Dan O.
++++++++++++++++++++++
“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.”
R.D.W.
++++++++++++++++++++++
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.”
S.L.N.
++++++++++++++++++++++
“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.”
R.L.Z.
++++++++++++++++++++++
“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.”

D.P.
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
• Headache
• Nosebleeds
• 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.

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  1. SH
    Reply

    I got the flu shot this year because it was mandatory for hospital volunteers. I have not felt right since. Arms and legs feel like they are burning and always feel like my body is fighting something. Cannot wear my contacts any longer because my eyes get severely red. NEVER AGAIN.

  2. GHB
    Reply

    Had the flu shot Nov. 11, 2012. Got the flu on Feb. 18, 2013. I’ve had flu shots every year since 1996, but only had the flu twice — once in 2008 (the year they said they didn’t guess well on the shot) and this year. I’m 62 years old and a high school teacher exposed to lots of germs every day. When I get the flu it’s always at this time of year and probably connected to compromised immune system, because I can clock it by the blooming of the pink trees on a street near work. When they bloom, in mid-to-late February (and it’s getting earlier and earlier, for climate change doubters), I can count on some kind of respiratory problem about a week later. Some years, just standard allergy, some years the flu.

  3. Dr. Judi
    Reply

    “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Thomas Frieden said Friday that 62% is “in line with what we expect” with influenza shots, which have to be reformulated every year from best guesses about which virus strains are likely to be circulating during the winter.”
    Let’s not expect more!

  4. MBT
    Reply

    My mother is soon to be 87 and her overall constitution began a downward spiral 12 months ago. She lost 46 pounds and is losing the ability to ambulate on her own. Thankfully, her mind is intact and, overall, her health is fairly good. In any event, I have observed that for the first time in years, my mother has not come down with her annual cough or flu.
    The irony here is that she has had the flu vaccine for at least the last 20 years; this year being the exception. To be fair, she doesn’t get out very often however I always found it odd that she contracted the same extended cough and flu year after year while getting the vaccine. I think modern medicine has a lot of good to offer however I am not an proponent of mass vaccinations and the mass hysteria propagated by the CDC and AMA every time the “flue season is upon us.”

  5. Jac
    Reply

    I had a very bad brush with flu in 1988 which lasted for 3 months. Since then I have received the vaccine every year. No flu virus since then. Whether this is a coincidence or not, I will continue to be vaccinated every year.

  6. Pam
    Reply

    My husband and I got the flu shot as usual this year. On Christmas Day I came down with the flu and 3 members of our family (who also received the shot, including my husband) subsequently got it. We were all sick as dogs. I feel let down by this year’s shot… it did not work.

  7. RN
    Reply

    I have worked in a hospital since 1998. I have never taken the flu shot and have not had the flu. I saw a poor fellow today who said, “I got two flu shots this year and I have had the flu two times”.
    I have heard that the carrier for the vaccine contains some nasty stuff. Does anyone have a list of these ingredients?

  8. lynn
    Reply

    I have never had a flu shot and have not had the flu.

  9. DWD
    Reply

    16% to 76% reduced chance of NOT getting the flu sounds good to me. That assuming a linear variation means over time the average would be about 46%. Your mileage may vary. I have heard a few people tell me they got sick from the shot, but the worse I have done is have a sore arm for 6-48 hours. I suspect most of these people would have become ill at that time whether they got the shot or not and already had exposure to the virus. I would suggest they get a shot the next season and see if it happens again. If it does then I would have more of a tendency to believe them.
    Having the flu is miserable so if I can reduce the chances by almost half that means fewer days in bed with fever, aches and chills from the flu. The aches and chills are worse than a fever for me.

  10. JAS
    Reply

    Got the flu a few years ago and took Tamiflu 1 day after symptoms showed up; quickly and dramatically improved all my symptoms/got better roughly within 1-2 days. (And I don’t like taking ANY meds whatsoever; my doctor convinced me to take the Tamiflu. Glad it worked well for me.)
    Got this year’s flu vaccine shot(Nov. 2012; my heart sped up/got runny nose and low fever/fairly mild symptoms. My heart seems to speed up significantly when I get flu shots or generic medications. Wonder if I’m sensitive to the fillers or preservatives –(also, when I get a fever my heart speeds up too); I have had heart arrythmias since my 20s; I’m 51 yrs. old now. Hopefully, the runny nose and low fever is a sign that my immune system got the flu antibodies revved up… and “on guard.” Wonder if people can tell the difference between a cold virus and flu virus, instead of mis-interpreting their symptoms. Also, I am overweight for my height; wonder if effectiveness of flu shot has anything to do with being overweight?

  11. Barbara
    Reply

    Propaganda from drug companies. If one shot doesn’t work, take two or three?
    Not likely the flu shot is helpful to anyone and it makes many people sick and drug companies rich. I would not take the pneumonia shot either. Every time I go to a doctor they are hustling something.
    I had three- six beat runs of atrial fib on a 24 hr Holter monitor and got sent to an electrophysicist, a doctor who shocks your heart or uses a device to burn a part of your heart. Out of 100,000 beats I had 24 that were atrial fib in 24 hours.
    Instead of having invasive treatment I bought a metronome (it keeps the beat for musicians, you can set the speed you want. I set it at “adagioa” at 72 beats a minute and keep it by my bed at night or turn it on and lie down if I feel an irregular heat beat. Nearly all my irregular heart beats are PVCs, premature ventricular contratctions, considered normal and nothing to do about them. My mother had them for 40 years until she died at ago 92 of a fall and broke her hip.
    I read a book this week, “The Harm We Do” by Otis Brawley, M.D. a very experienced honest doctor, and he advises skepticism about medicine and doctors. Patient beware.

  12. Dr. B
    Reply

    Anecdotes are not data. Vaccinations do not “cause” influenza. While some individuals may have adverse reactions there is an effort to screen out this possibilty prior to treatment and each individual is advised both of the possibility of negative reactions and that the vaccine is not 100% effective. It is however a treatment that saves many lives each year especially among the elderly and health compromised.
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY RESPONSE:
    Thank you Dr. B.
    Do you have any data or evidence from randomized controlled trials to support your belief? We are most anxious to review it.
    Have you reviewed the Cochrane Collaboration data on influenza vaccines? You may find our “bonus” interview with Tom Jefferson, MD, Coordinator of the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group, of interest. It is a free streaming audio download. Just click on the bottom white arrow to listen:
    http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2012/12/15/884-fighting-flu/
    Thank you for your interest in this topic. We are all in agreement that evidence-based medicine is desirable. A influenza vaccine that is highly effective and safe is a wonderful goal. We only wish we had more data to establish that such currently exists.

  13. A.C.
    Reply

    I have Rheumatoid Arthritis so my immune system is compromised. I have gotten a flu shot for at least 10 years now since I was diagnosed. I am extra careful about washing my hands frequently. I don’t like hand sanitizers. I have not had the flu at all. I am also on a biologic medication which makes me even more susceptible. I am just cautious but not to the point of obsessive. Life is too short!

  14. DS
    Reply

    Keep me posted

  15. N.V.M.
    Reply

    I was vaccinated in Oct. for the flu and am still fighting it and its side-effects after first developing it 2 weeks ago. I contacted acute bronchitis and acute sinunitis. I blame the severity on my age, 80, and also being rundown from the Christmas festivities.
    I have had the shot for many, many years and this is my first flu in all that time and it was very severe.

  16. joybug56
    Reply

    On the topic of flu shot…..I am one to opt out but this year due to aging and the warning of the medical groups…..I decided I would get a flu shot…..I did !!! and THOUGH I was told I WOULD NOT become sick due to the flu shot…I’m here to tell you I did…now not as sick as if it had been the flu but I did miss two days of work and spent them in bed….WHO CAN YOU TRUST?
    The medical professionals ….uhm… I distrust them the most! I believe medicine has come a long ways from when it was pushed by a joker riding in a wagon of goods…..but I am still leary of all their praise of medical discoveries of this amazing miracle drug…..how many people do we know that have had major complications due to the miracle drug to cure all that ails?
    My dad used to faithfully take the flu shot and faithfully he would spend five days in bed sicker than sick….I was not that sick …..the flu shot has changed since those days of my dad’s flu shots…thankful for that!
    I guess it is a personal choice…I think healthy diet, exercise and using wisdom is the best cure …if the flu season is at hand…make your outings but a few necessary adventures…if you have to work in the public ….wash wash wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, keep Lysol on you don’t be embarrassed to spray it, and bombard your body with vitamin c …lots of water to keep your system flushed…get plenty of rest ….

  17. Dr. Judi
    Reply

    You write that researchers concluded that there are not adequate data to prove a flu shot will prevent sickness for people OVER THE AGE OF 65. That is why the people over the age of 65 need to take the extra dose (double or quadruple) of flu immunization, as their ability to produce antibodies is less efficient than the ability of younger people.

  18. DiT
    Reply

    I’ve been getting the flu shot for the last 13-15 years. I’ve had the flu twice in the couple of years that I forgot to get it. This year I didn’t get it soon enough. I have the flu now. I also have asthma so it always scares me to get the flu.
    I didn’t have asthma when I was younger so I didn’t seem to “feel” the effects of the flu as strongly. Now the sore throat is always very bad, and my sinuses are typically excruciating in pain.
    I have never taken Tamiflu but if I was diagnosed in time, I might try it. Doctors are reluctant to give antibiotics too much now but when sinuses get like this, nothing else works. However, I’ve had good luck with the flu shot until this year and I’m inside the two week point so I just got it too late.

  19. paulbyr
    Reply

    I have taken flu vaccine every year since (I think) 1960s except one year, abt 1977. That year I got the flu – it was one where anytime I tried to move my head at all, I got a really sharp pain in my head. Very uncomfortable for about 3 days, then regular uncomfortable flu symptoms for several more days. I am now 75 yrs old.

  20. Margie W.
    Reply

    I have had flu shots twice in my life and became very ill immediately afterwards each time.

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