Flu Vaccines: Worth the Risk?
"In any given year, only about 20 percent of the population will get sick with the flu."
"Health Canada now recommends the flu shot for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters."2
"I had a flu shot last year and I've never been sicker in my life," my Aunt Margaret told me recently. Conversation at our family reunion had taken a medical turn, as it often does, and Aunt Margaret wanted to tell me about her flu shot experience.
"I heard the ads offering free shots. I heard the warnings," Auntie Marg explained. "I was worried. I mean, I'm 78 now, and part of the elderly population advised to get this shot. They tell us how horrible the flu can be. To be honest, I didn't know what to do, and my doctor recommended it. My doctor told me that if I were to get the flu it was a risk for those around me. I knew the stress of worrying would weaken my immune system, so I took the shot."
My cousin Carolyn said she was concerned, too. "Mom didn't want to risk infecting young Nicholas and, with all the hype about giving the flu shot to children, I wasn't sure what to do either. Now they're recommending it for women in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy."The confusion and questions from my family spurred me to action. Why did Aunt Margaret get sick after her flu shot? Were they really recommending flu vaccination for children and pregnant women? I wish I could say that the answers I found were definitive or satisfying, but they weren't.
Health Canada advises the flu vaccine may cause fever, fatigue, muscle aches, and respiratory problems such as coughs, wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, or sore throats.
One possible but rare side effect is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which results in weakness and abnormal sensations in the arms and legs, and sometimes paralysis. During a two-year study in Spain reported in the June 2004 issue of Neurological Sciences, 98 GBS cases were reported in patients age 20 years and over, yielding an overall age-adjusted incidence of 1.26 per 100,000 population. Similarly, a study published in March 2004 in the Journal of Child Neurology estimated the incidence of GBS ranges from 0.5 to 1.5 in 100,000 in children under 18 years of age.Poor efficacy rate
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the flu shot only for people who are at high risk from complications from the flu, and family members in close contact with them. They explain that if the flu shot is a close match to the circulating strain of flu virus, it can prevent the flu in 70 to 90 percent of healthy people under age 65, and among the elderly it is 30- to 70-percent effective in preventing hospitalization for pneumonia and the flu, unless the elderly person is in a nursing home, where the efficacy drops to 50 to 60 percent.
Yet, in any given year, only about 20 percent of the population will get sick with the flu. "I wonder how many people who are immunized wouldn't have gotten the flu anyway," Aunt Margaret pondered. "How can Health Canada be sure which strain is the one to immunize against? What happens if they're wrong?"
Dr. Kris Severyn, as quoted in the Vaccine Risk Awareness Network newsletter (vran.org), explains that the CDC collect viruses overseas, particularly in China, in an attempt to predict the viruses that will infect people in North America the following year. They then try to determine the potential flu strain by February, so the vaccine can be manufactured and distributed by the fall.
But they don't always guess right, as evidenced during the 2003-2004 flu season, when the Fijian strain of influenza A was prevalent, yet hadn't been included in the flu shots given to millions of Canadians. The CDC explained that, once they'd determined the correct strain of the flu, there wasn't enough time to grow the viral material to produce the vaccine needed. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is recommending a flu vaccine for the 2004-2005 season in Canada contain virus antigens to protect against the New Caledonia and Fijian strains of influenza A and the Shanghai strain of influenza B. Only time will tell if they have gambled safely with the health of Canadians.
Odds are low
In September 1993 doctors of the Dutch National Influenza Centrum reported that a year earlier two-thirds of residents at an Amsterdam nursing home were vaccinated for the flu. In March 1993 a severe flu struck 49 percent of them and 10 percent died. Of those vaccinated, 50 percent got sick, compared with 48 percent of those not vaccinated.
Aunt Margaret decided that, with these odds, she'd be better off not taking the vaccine, and she'd rather build a strong immune system and take measures to protect herself.
Flu shots for children and pregnant women?
It's now recommended that children from 23 months to six years have not one, but two flu shots. Yet the CDC admits the level of protection is unknown, because there are no studies showing efficacy of one shot versus two in young, previously unvaccinated children.
"I'm not sure I like this," Carolyn says. "When I think of all the vaccines recommended for Nicholas before he's two years old, do I really want to add two more? Especially without studies proving that the shot is safe or even works? On top of that, now I have to wonder what risks there are for my unborn child if I get the flu shot myself."
It is worrisome that the flu vaccine is one that still contains mercury. Fetuses and children age 14 and younger are the most vulnerable to mercury toxicity, according to the CDC. An article in the August 1999 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology says the greatest susceptibility to the nervous system toxicity of mercury occurs during late gestation, which is exactly when Carolyn would be getting her flu shot.
I showed Carolyn a video I found online from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, that demonstrates how mercury exposure causes brain neuron degeneration (commons.ucalgary.ca/mercury/). "That's enough for me," said Carolyn. "I guess we all have to decide for ourselves if the benefits outweigh the risks, and I've made my decision, and I'm not comfortable risking our health."
*Boost your immunity against the flu
*Echinacea 1000 mg daily
*Goldenseal 100 mg three times daily
*Astragalus 200 mg three times daily
*Garlic 600 mg three times daily
- Lorna R. Vanderhaeghe, Healthy Immunity (Macmillan Canada, 2001)
Protect yourself from colds and flu
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick and keep your distance from others when you are sick.
- Wash your hands often to keep from picking up germs.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Stay home when you are sick.
US Centers for Disease Control