I'm not anti-vaccine. I'm pro-science. I believe that public health policy should be firmly based on the best available research. And what the best available research says, according to the top researchers in the world, is that the flu shot is useless.
But I'm pretty sure that nobody involved in mainstream medicine wants anyone to actually think about whether you need the flu vaccine.
They just want you to line up and get the shot. You see, everybody in medicine makes money from the vaccine, from the Semi-Registered Nurse's Assistant's Aid's Best Friend (i.e., part-time CVS employee who just washed her hands) who actually injects you, to the stockholders and executives at Novartis and Glaxosmithkline, who make the vaccine, to the CDC, which gets lots of money indirectly by pimping the flu vaccination each fall.
The trouble is, it's bad medicine. And bad science.
Don't believe me? Then believe the Cochrane Collaboration. This is an independent organization which performs analyses of medical research, and one of the sources that evidence-based doctors, such as myself, use to guide their recommendations to their patients (of course, I'm absolutely *not* making any recommendations to any of my patients, and if any of my patients are still reading this, I want you to stop immediately).
According to the Cochrane review, the advantages of vaccinating healthy adults are virtually nonexistent. This recent study found that the flu vaccine:
- Did not reduce the number of days lost from work;
- Did not reduce the number of people hospitalized;
- Did not reduce the number of complications due to secondary infection (pneumonia, etc);
- Was effective in only 1 out of 100 people;
- Paralyzed 1 out of every 1,000,000 people who were vaccinated.
Furthermore, the study's authors hedged their conclusions even more. The authors said "Fifteen of the 36 trials were funded by vaccine companies and four had no funding declaration. Our results may be an optimistic estimate because company-sponsored influenza vaccines trials tend to produce results favorable to their products and some of the evidence comes from trials carried out in ideal viral circulation and matching conditions" (Emphasis mine).
For those of you who are not familiar with reading scientific studies, this is a researcher's polite way of saying they think the data is trash.
This conclusion was reached by Cochrane researcher Tom Jefferson, in a 2006 analysis published in the British Medical Journal. Dr. Jefferson concluded that there is an "absence of evidence" that vaccinations have any effectiveness at all. "In children under 2 years inactivated vaccines had the same field efficacy as placebo," Dr. Jefferson said, "and in healthy people under 65 vaccination did not affect hospital stay, time off work, or death from influenza and its complications."
But what about our aging American population? The elderly is a group heavily targeted by influenza vaccine marketing, but that is primarily the result of easy and profitable Medicare reimbursement more than any evidence that flu vaccines actually help this population.
In fact, the evidence is so bad that Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy has suggested that those who recommend the flu vaccine for older people are at best ignorant and at worst disingenuous.
"These 36,000 deaths that we keep talking about with the flu, that we want to get people vaccinated for so they don't happen, really is not going to occur. And we have to be honest about that," Osterholm told NPR last year. "I know that some people are going to find it very challenging to basically understand that much of what we've probably done has had little impact on deaths," he said.
Nor is the Cochrane Collaborative silent on this issue. This study, first published in 2006 and reviewed again in 2009, concluded that "the available evidence is of poor quality and provides no guidance regarding the safety, efficacy or effectiveness of influenza vaccines for people aged 65 years or older." The study went on to note the "low quality" of the research, as well as "likely presence of biases, which make interpretation of these data difficult and any firm conclusions potentially misleading."
Some of the research backing Osterholm's claim includes research by Dr. Lisa Jackson and published in Lancet. Dr. Jackson's study -- which spanned 3 years and included over 3,500 people -- concluded that vaccines don't really help, particularly in the area of secondary infection prevention. Specifically, " influenza vaccination was not associated with a reduced risk of community-acquired pneumonia," her paper concluded.
What other studies seems to show is that, far from aiding those with weak immune systems, flu vaccines either fail to help or overtly damage people with already-compromised immune systems.
The Cochrane Collaborative's persistent claim that the data regarding flu vaccine research is compromised has been bolstered recently. A paper authored by researchers at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control found that data from several Canadian hospitals reported peak vaccine effectiveness before the flu season had even started. They concluded that this created a "bias tending to over-estimate vaccine protection," which as other research has shown, is marginal at best.
However, there are research-proven ways of significantly reducing your risk of contracting the flu this winter, and the best ways of avoiding the flu involve no vaccines, no doctors, and don't cost you any money.
- First of all, according to the CDC itself, washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent the acquisition of most infectious diseases.
- Exercise has also been proven to prevent death from the flu as well as other infectious diseases.
Those are probably the two most important ways to prevent the flu. And the research is unequivocal at this point that nutritional status has a profound effect on immune function, which determines how likely you are to get the flu. But then again, how many doctors actually test your nutritional status to make individual-specific recommendations for improving your immune function during the flu season?
Actually, I do know of one.
Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 860-567-5727.