a kid is about to get a shot

People are still suffering from the flu. Many are understandably worried sick, especially for their children. That’s because there are reports almost every day about additional deaths from this year’s influenza epidemic. And it’s not just newborns or the elderly. Many otherwise healthy young people and adults have died from this H3N2 virus. The CDC is now telling us that the vaccine is better than originally projected, though numbers from Australia and Canada are less optimistic. Flu myths and misconceptions have a lot of people up in arms.

Were We Prepared for This Epidemic?

This year’s flu season caught public health officials off guard. They did not anticipate such widespread outbreaks would stretch emergency rooms beyond their limits.

Vaccine makers thought this year’s flu shot would protect people from infection. They didn’t count on the dominant strain of flu, H3N2, mutating.

How Good Is the Flu Shot This Year?

Early warning signals from Australia should have alerted U.S. experts that we could be in for trouble. The flu season in the southern hemisphere runs about six months ahead of ours. In Australia, the vaccine was only about 10 percent effective against H3N2, which caused most of the serious flu cases there (New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 4, 2018).

Evidence from Canada shows a similar situation in North America. Preliminary reports indicate that the flu vaccine is about 10 percent effective against H3N2 in adults under 65 (Eurosurveilance, Feb. 2018).

The CDC Contradicts the Canadians and the Aussies:

A preliminary report from the CDC (Feb. 16, 2018) states that the vaccine effectiveness against influenza A and B was 36%. It was 25% effective against the killer H3N2 type A flu virus. The experts at the CDC recognize that this interim report may not reflect the actual vaccine effectiveness. We will likely have to wait several months to know the final results.

Is It Too Late to Get Vaccinated?

Virtually every message we have heard over the last six weeks tells us to get a flu shot. We are reminded that this year’s flu season is likely to last several more weeks. Even though the vaccine did not perform as well as hoped, public health officials insist that the vaccination will lessen the severity of the illness even if it won’t always prevent infection. How strong is the evidence? Here is a reader who wants to know:

Do Flu Shots Make Influenza Less Severe?

Q. In most of the news coverage of flu outbreaks, I’ve seen a recommendation to get a flu shot even if it’s not a good match. The announcer always says that even if it doesn’t prevent illness, the vaccine will make your flu symptoms less severe. Is that true? Is there any good quality research to support this assertion?

We searched the medical literature to try to find a solid scientific answer to this important question. One of the largest and most recent studies came from France.

Flu Myths and Misconceptions:

These French investigators have expressed consternation that there has been so little high-quality research on this question (Vaccine, April 11, 2017):

“Surprisingly, very few studies have addressed the question of whether the vaccine mitigates influenza severity among those who develop the illness despite being vaccinated.”

The researchers wanted to know if a flu shot would result in less severe illness such as pneumonia or hospitalization. The study they conducted on 2,277 French seniors found that three-fourths of the seniors who tested positive for influenza had been immunized.

Those who had received the shot were less likely to suffer headaches from the flu. This small benefit led the scientists to conclude:

“Our results are consistent with previous studies reporting limited or no efficacy of the influenza vaccine in reducing illness severity at onset of symptoms.”

They call for influenza vaccines to provide better protection.

The Other Side:

We were taken to task by a reader who questioned our reliance on the latest French research on this topic:

I have come to rely on your site and columns for unbiased yet natural-leaning information on health issues. But your column today, February 18, 2018, in The Seattle Times, has given me second thoughts about your accuracy and research skills. You featured a question about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in lessening the severity of the illness, and claimed both that “(n)o one knows whether this year’s flu shot will lessen symptom severity.” and that French scientists found very little symptom reduction among more than 2,000 patients in their study.

“I must call b.s. You are cherry-picking quotations and research, and skewing your response to the question. Especially in this year of pandemic flu, this is very irresponsible on your part.

“In a matter of minutes, I was able to find a study from August 2015 from The American Society of Microbiology titled “Influenza Vaccine, While Not 100% Effective, May Reduce Severity of Flu Symptoms;” an article dated May 25, 2017, titled “New CDC Study Shows Flu Vaccine Reduces Severe Outcomes in Hospitalized Patients”; and, from Science New in January, 2018, quoting The Canadian Medical Association Journal: “Repeated vaccination for influenza in older adults reduced the severity of the virus and reduced hospital admissions, found new research.”

“Your response in this week’s column may serve to discourage many people from getting the vaccine and failing to receive the benefits they most desperately deserve. Some of those people will die.”

To be fair, other researchers have reported less severe symptoms if people were vaccinated. One study reported a reduction in ICU admissions and deaths among hospitalized patients in Spain (Clinical Infectious Diseases, July, 2013).

There are studies that show virtually no benefit in terms of flu symptom severity. And other studies that do show benefit. What shocked us the most, though, was that there were so few large-scale well conducted trials. When we hear news anchors state unequivocally that a flu shot will reduce symptoms and severity of the flu we would like to see much better evidence to support such claims.

Another Flu Myth and Misconception: Hand Washing Will Prevent the Flu!

The other advice that public health officials always give at this time of year is that hand-washing is critical. Washing your hands is a good practice any time, but just how well does it protect people against influenza?

This question is hard to study, but some scientists have tackled it. A review of the research found that a combination of hand washing and face masks provided statistically significant protection against influenza (Epidemiology and Infection, May 2014). Hand hygiene alone was not effective. The authors conclude:

“the modest efficacy of hand hygiene suggests that additional measures besides hand hygiene may also be important to control influenza.”

Research from Hong Kong demonstrates that face masks together with hand washing helps prevent household transmission of flu (Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 6, 2009).

person wearing facemask

Woman wears facemask outdoors

Would You Wear A Face Mask?

Americans don’t generally embrace face masks the way people in China or Japan appear to. There haven’t been public health messages in the U.S. endorsing face masks. But new research suggests that there should be.

A person with the flu doesn’t have to cough or sneeze to spread viruses. Researchers at the University of Maryland discovered that simply breathing puts virus-containing droplets into the air (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 2018).  The lead author suggests:

“So when someone is coming down with influenza, they should go home and not remain in the workplace and infect others.”

Sadly, many people cannot afford to stay home when they are sick. They may not get paid sick leave from their employer. They may be expected to show up no matter how sick they are (or contagious).

It is estimated that 40 million Americans fit this category. Most industrialized countries don’t want people who are sick spreading their infections to others. Perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to contemplate a more prudent approach to sick leave.

Readers Share Their Perspective:

Linda in NC wants to know about flu myths and misconceptions:

“Thanks for your ongoing dispensing of medical research reports addressing various issues, including issues that may be controversial. In general, I think we want simple and absolute solutions to problems, especially medical ones, and life just isn’t like that very often. The mysteries of the human body and mind are still often that — mysteries.

“You are willing to take the heat for providing medical research information that may conflict with the general trend, even when it may result in critical or angry responses. I like that about you! I work in the medical field and see the need for responsible but critical thinking. We have the responsibility to stay as informed as possible. Thanks for helping.”

Susan in Virginia got Tamiflu early:

“A couple of years ago I went to a scheduled morning appointment with my doctor. The nurse took my temperature as a matter of routine, and discovered I had some fever. I was surprised because I did not feel sick yet.

“Because it was flu season, I was tested and the results showed that I tested positive for type A (I had received the flu vaccine a few weeks earlier). I did take the Tamiflu that was prescribed. I went home and went to bed, and started feeling worse and worse. I tried to tough it out, thinking the fever would help fight the virus, but by the evening I was feeling so bad that I took ibuprofen.

“When I woke up the next morning I was feeling much better and felt more well as the day went on. Within a couple of days I was feeling pretty much normal! I am sure that taking Tamiflu so early in the course of the flu helped tremendously!”

What has been your experience with the flu this year? What do you do to prevent catching the flu? Would you wear a facemask? What about the flu shot? Did it prevent the flu or lessen the severity of the symptoms? Share your story below in the comment section.

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  1. Anthony

    Hi all,

    I have been doing nasal flushing for over 7 years now, and would not dream of not doing it. I mix up 2 litres of tepid water with a sprinkle of salt and put that in a small indoor watering can and flush a litre through each nostril. I dare not do this otherwise I will get a bad cold or flu for about 6 weeks.

    Apparently the cold germs and flu viruses settle in your nasal passages and then multiply in the dark warm damp places and they then drip down into your throat.

    If I do nasal flushing once a day even with a cold or flu I can still breathe through my nose at night, and the cold or flu does not end up settling on my chest with a bad cough.

    It’s well worth looking into:




  2. Gary

    I am 80 years old and during the last twenty years I have had the flu once and I got it on an international flight on my return to the states from Asia. I have never had a flu vaccination. My diet has been plant based for the last 50 years and during my frequent mission trips to Asia I developed a taste for Indian food: Recipes with turmeric, curries, garlic, and ginger root. The bottom line: A total plant based diet builds up the immune system, I also supplement the plant based diet with vitamins C, D, magnesium, and a variety of herbs. Look at the research by Dr. Colin Cambell i.e. Forks over Knives:

  3. Margaret

    In the early 1970s, I was working in a hospital that demanded we take flu shots. My friend and I got so sick we wondered if we would make it through the illness. A third friend developed Guillain-Barre syndrome and became critically ill. My friend and I have not taken a flu shot since and have not had the flu. My husband has Crohn’s Disease and his doctor insists he take a yearly flu shot–he usually gets a cold or the flu about ten days later.

  4. Hermine
    Columbus OH

    I given a flu shot in 2016 at a drug store and immediately I had a breathing problem. I was given an EPI-PEN shot by the pharmacist and breathing returned to normal. My doctor said “no more flu shots.” I am not allergic to eggs so perhaps something else in the shot may have caused the allergic reaction. This year there is an epidemic of the flu and I avoid people who are sick and I wash my hands continuously. I am retired so I am not around people. In 2019 a nasal spray for the flu has been approved by FDA and hopefully it will not cause any allergic symptoms for me.

  5. SK
    North Carolina

    In the fall of 2016 I had the flu vaccine. I also had the pneumonia shot and Prevnar. In 2017 I had pneumonia twice, acute bronchitis, and Influenza A during the year. Very ill.

  6. Cynthia

    About 10 years ago I agreed to a flu shot at the urging of my primary care doctor, even though I was very hesitant due to adverse effects from previous flu vaccines.

    I began feeling very ill on the drive home. By evening, I started vomiting and experienced dry heaves, fever, and headaches that would not let up.

    When we made a call to the advice nurse, I was told it was impossible to get these symptoms from the vaccine, and that it was a “coincidence”. I was refused Tamiflu. I continued with the flu for a week and ended up with pneumonia that caused me to pass out. Thankfully my husband heard me fall and called 911. A trip to the ER via ambulance and admission to the hospital followed.

    I will never accept another flu vaccine. Several weeks ago I developed a fever and other symptoms. I tried the hydrogen peroxide in ears treatment. My left ear had minor bubbling but the right ear foamed and bubbled like crazy. I repeated this for a couple days and felt completely well!

    I don’t trust modern medicine because they do not listen to the patient, instead insisting they are right and basically calling you a liar. Importance is placed on following protocol at patients’ expense.

  7. Laurie La B
    Cottonwood, AZ

    I have not had a cold or flu in many years and have been exposed to both. I have been using elderberry,probiotics and anything I find to build up my immune sysyem. I have never had a flu shot. I am 80 years old.

    My best friends daughter and her husband had the flu shots and died from the flu. The stores here have sold out of elderberry. But you should do what you feel is best for you.

  8. Larry

    I am 66 and I have had Type I diabetes for 50 years. Since 1990, I have had two cases of the flu and both were triggered by the so called ‘flu vaccine’. In the last 20 years, I have intentionally declined the flu vaccine and I have not had the flu. I do not believe the flu vaccine had any positive effect on those who receive it; after all, the vaccine is designed on last year’s virus structure and not this year’s. We are led to believe that scientists can predict the new strain of virus and that last year’s ‘antivirus formula’ will protect us from this year’s mutated virus. These viral mutations are known to be random, so guessing the correct antiviral vaccine is almost as accurate as guessing the Power Ball numbers!

    The pharmaceutical companies continue to push the public to get vaccinated via the CDC’s publications. The reason for this is quite simple………… profit margin. The media continues to emphasize the number deaths caused by the flu, but again every news outlet is trying to protect one of their largest advertising incomes…..the pharmaceutical companies. Let’s assume that 100 people die from the flu this year in the US; this represent 1 out of 3,231,000 Americans. You can do the math yourself!

    In general, I suggest start eating healthy and exercise for life. If I can do it with a deadly medical disease, you can do it with a much healthier body from the get-go!!!!

  9. Dorothy
    Seattle WA

    I am 67 years old and have never had a flu vaccine. I did get the flu this year and was sick four days and then felt lousy for another week or so. I have done a lot of reading about the efficacy of the vaccine and the methods they use to decide how to formulate it. I decided it was more likely to be profitable for pharmaceutical companies than provide me with protection from a virus that may not be part of the formulation.

    You would think that the company that heavily promotes the necessity of being vaccinated would also be extensively testing how well their product performs.

    I may be a foolish cynic but I think this is a huge moneymaker that has questionable benefits.

  10. Someone

    To me it seems stupid to take a vaccine of any kind when the manufacture carries no liability. They can put whatever they want behind that needle on the cheap and if anything goes wrong your on your own!

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