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How Bad Is the Flu? How Good Is the Shot?

We are getting incredibly confusing and conflicting messages about this year’s flu season. First we were told that influenza was hitting early and hitting hard. Network news shows aired scary video clips of sick people in overcrowded emergency rooms. On January 9th the mayor of Boston declared a public health emergency because hospitals in the city were overwhelmed with patients. The city of Boston began offering free flu shots on January 12th hoping to control the epidemic.
On the same day, January 12th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a public health emergency for his state and gave pharmacists the go-ahead to administer shots to children as young as 6 months old. Everyone is being urged to get a flu shot ASAP.
So far so bad. Surprisingly, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new report suggesting that during the first week in January there had been a decline in high levels of flu activity, especially in the Southeast. The CDC intimated that levels might be dropping in the state of New York, even as New York City was declaring an emergency. There are now 47 states reporting widespread influenza outbreaks. The CDC also noted that doctors’ offices were reporting fewer cases of influenza.
So, has the flu season peaked or are we still in for severe outbreaks for weeks to come? At the moment it would appear that the CDC is hedging its bets. Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the CDC, says the flu is “elevated” in most of the country and added, “it may be decreasing in some areas, but that’s hard to predict…influenza activity ebbs and flows.”
Bottom line: public health officials do not know where we are in this epidemic. Judging from the doctors in the trenches of emergency departments around the country, it is still very bad. If flu has peaked, they are not seeing it.
What About the Flu Shot?
We were told early in the season that this year’s vaccine was about as good as it gets. In other words, the match between the viral strains circulating in the country and the flu shot that was prepared months ago was 92%. That was very reassuring. But now the CDC reports that the actual effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing influenza illness may be 62%. For the bad influenza A strain of H3N2 that is causing so much misery, the vaccine may only be 55% effective.
If the match between circulating flu and vaccine is so very good this year, why are so many people still getting sick? Well, the dirty little secret that is never mentioned when people are urged to get their shot is that flu vaccines are far from 100% effective. When researchers have reviewed the medical literature for influenza immunization studies published between 1967 and 2011, they’ve concluded that effectiveness ranges from 16% at the bottom to 76% at the top with “pooled efficacy” of about 59% (The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Jan. 2012). That is roughly what the CDC’s preliminary data suggest for this year’s vaccine.
For some, that may mean the glass is more than half full. For others, it suggests that the flu vaccine is not all that great. Even the CDC director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has admitted that “the flu vaccine is far from perfect, but it’s still the best tool to fight the flu.”
Another expert, Thomas Jefferson, MD, has been critical of vaccine effectiveness. Dr. Jefferson is Coordinator of the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group. These independent analysts have also analyzed all the available influenza studies. Dr. Jefferson points out that in healthy young adults for whom the shots work best, “you have to vaccinate between 33 and 99 healthy adults to avoid one case of influenza…In healthy adults, the vaccines shorten duration of illness by half a working day.” If other consumer goods, such as cars or toasters, were so unreliable, we would be outraged.
To hear a free “bonus” interview with Dr. Jefferson click on this link and then click on the bottom white arrow.
You may also find our Guide to Colds, Coughs and the Flu worth downloading.
People’s Pharmacy Bottom Line:
• We need better influenza vaccinations. Researchers around the world must come up with a better flu shot that works for a wider variety of strains, lasts longer and is far more effective. This should be a doable project, though it will take major resources to accomplish the task.
• Public health officials should be more honest about effectiveness. And we also need better data about adverse reactions. In the effort to encourage everyone to get a flu shot, public health experts have not wanted to dampen enthusiasm. Dr. Jefferson has pointed out that we have been slow to seek information about side effects of the flu shot.

• There is rarely any mention about antiviral drugs during a flu outbreak. There are, however, several medications that actually do seem to work against influenza either to prevent it or speed healing. There is some controversy about the effectiveness of drugs such as Tamiflu, but to date there is no evidence of widespread resistance to the medication. To be effective Tamiflu needs to be taken with 24 to 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Tamiflu (Oseltamivir) Side Effects:
• Digestive upset, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea

• Headache

• Nosebleeds

• Psychological distress, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations

• Severe skin reactions, rash, redness (require immediate medical attention!)

What Is Your Experience?
We would love to know how you have fared this flu season. Did you get a flu shot? If so, did it work? Please comment below.
Did you get a shot and still come down with the flu? We want to hear your story as well. Did you experience any side effects from the shot? We would like to learn more about the pros and cons of this year’s vaccine.
We would also like to find out about Tamiflu experiences. Did you get a prescription for this oral drug? Did it work to either prevent the flu or speed healing? Did you experience any side effects?
Thanks for sharing your influenza stories this year. It is our sincere wish that you can avoid the flu (take your vitamin D) or, if you come down with it, that you recover quickly. For more information about the effects of vitamin D on the immune system, we suggest you take a moment to read this recent research report.
Here are some tips to avoid catching the flu.
Please share your story below in the comment section and thanks.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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