After my recent post, Which is Safer: Vaccines or Illnesses? (which I focused on measles and the MMR), some people asked me to write a similar post about the flu. It’s seasonally appropriate, as the flu shot push is on. But is a flu shot really necessary? Is it the best way to protect your family? Let’s take a closer look.
Flu Shot Recommendations
Widespread use of the flu vaccine is relatively recent. In 2002, it was recommended that people over 65, and children between 6 and 23 months should receive a flu shot. Older children and adults were not recommended to get one, unless they were immunocompromised, health care workers, or otherwise at specific risk.
In 2000 – 2001, only infants and children with specific health conditions were recommended to get the flu shot. In the early 2000s, anaphylactic allergy to egg proteins was a contraindication for receiving a flu shot. People were also warned not to receive the live, attenuated virus (i.e. the FluMist) if they would be in contact with people at high risk, as it can shed. The flu shot was recommended for pregnant women at this time.
In 2005 – 2006, there were approximately 90 million doses of flu shot available from four manufacturers. Recommendations were the same as above. By 2006, it was recommended that all children between 6 months and 5 years old receive the flu shot. In 2007, that was extended to children up to age 9, and they called for 2 doses of the flu shot for the first time (in children receiving the flu shot for the first time). The 2008 – 2009 flu season was the first when vaccination of all children under 18 was recommended.
As we can see, the recommendations have expanded greatly in the last decade. In 2004, only those at high risk were recommended to receive the flu vaccine (children under 2, adults over 65, those with certain health conditions). By 2008, flu vaccination was recommended across the board. (And in 2009, we had the H1N1 epidemic, and found that children who had had a seasonal flu shot in 2008 were more likely to get H1N1.)
In the 2014 – 2015 flu season, there will be as many as 159 million doses available. (This is a 77% increase over the 2005 – 2006 season.) They also actively recommend the use of the FluMist (which is live and can shed the flu virus for up to 3 weeks post-vaccination) in children ages 2 – 8 years old.
Why the sharp increase in recommendations recently? And has it actually helped?
Flu Deaths in the 2000s
It’s important to understand that this data includes both flu deaths and pneumonia deaths (which may or may not be caused by flu) and that many of these cases were not laboratory-confirmed flu (until around 2008 – 2009). These are also mostly guesses, as they survey only 122 cities around the country and extrapolate the data. They usually estimate high.
Let’s take a look at total flu deaths in people under 18 from 2000 – 2014. (Source for data from 2000 – 2007).
- 2000 – 2001: 67
- 2001 – 2002: 107
- 2002 – 2003: 82
- 2003 – 2004: 103
- 2004 – 2005: 115
- 2005 – 2006: 101
- 2006 – 2007: 67
- 2007 – 2008: UNSURE (link) — assumed to be similar to 2005.
- 2008 – 2009: 67
- 2009 – 2010: 282 (another link says: 1300. There is no data to support such a drastic number)
- 2010 – 2011: 105
- 2011 – 2012: 46
- 2012 – 2013: 149
- 2013 – 2014: 96
Flu mortality in people under 18 years of age hasn’t changed appreciably in the last 14 years.
Very few children were vaccinated for flu in the early 2000s, before the recommendation to vaccinate all children under 18 (in 2008). In the 2007 – 2008 flu season, about 31% of children 17 and under were vaccinated for the flu. In 2011 – 2012, approximately 51% of children under 18 received the flu vaccine; that jumped to 56.6% in 2012 – 2013.
We’ve seen vaccination rates nearly double in the last 6 years, but flu deaths haven’t changed at all. In fact, in some years they’ve increased from before the vaccine was recommended. This does not bode well for the efficacy of the vaccine. And if the vaccine isn’t effective, why use it?
What Is the Flu Like?
The thing is, the flu is annoying. But it is a mild illness that does not kill healthy children. It can (and does) kill children with underlying conditions and weak immune systems. This is why there has always been a recommendation to give the children at risk a flu shot (and that’s something you can discuss with your doctor if it affects your child).
But there’s no reason to vaccinate healthy children against the flu. That’s even more true this year, when the CDC is recommending the FluMist for children ages 2 – 8. If are vaccinated with this live virus and then wipe their noses and touch others (which *all* preschoolers will do…), they can spread the flu to people who have compromised immune systems.
Forget herd immunity. The true risk here is people who’ve recently received the FluMist. They do have the live virus in their systems, and they can spread it to others.
For those not at risk (most), the flu basically has these symptoms:
- Moderate fever
- Body aches
- Congestion/runny nose
- Sore throat
- Low appetite
This usually lasts 2 – 4 days; it can last 7 – 14 in rare cases, if it’s a more severe flu. Young children occasionally have vomiting or diarrhea with the flu, although if those are the main symptoms it’s not truly “flu,” but more likely gastroenteritis. In very few cases, the flu can lead to complications like pneumonia and require hospitalization. It’s important to know that the symptoms above can come with a lot of non-specific respiratory viruses and that feeling “flu-like” does not mean you actually have the flu. The only way to know for sure is to visit your doctor and get a test done. Most people are not sick enough to need to do this.
What are The Risks of the Flu Shot?
Not only is it largely ineffective against flu (and especially ineffective against the flu-like illness that the shot doesn’t even cover), it comes with risks.
- In 2013, researchers noted that certain brands of the flu shot were causally linked to the development of narcolepsy in children
- Researchers noted a small increase in Guillaine-Barre syndrome in those who were vaccinated (they do still conclude the vaccine is better than not, but the data I presented above doesn’t agree)
- There is no protection against hospitalization from the vaccine in children; and children with asthma were three times as likely to be hospitalized if they received the flu vaccine
- The flu vaccine contains thimerosal (some types; not all), an ingredient which has not been definitively proven to be safe and which worries many parents
- According to VAERS, there were 548 very serious reactions to the flu shot from 2000 – 2014 (death, permanent disability, life threatening) in children under 18. That’s an average of 39 per year, and we can assume that a significant portion wasn’t reported. This number rivals the number of flu deaths each year in this age group.
Just so we’re clear, the VAERS data can’t prove a causal relationship between the event and the vaccine. We don’t know the degree of under-reporting, but we do know that there is an under-reporting problem. And we are comparing deaths alone from flu (because there’s no significant rate of permanent disability) to death/disability/life-threatening for the flu shot. But I haven’t included hospitalizations or ER visits in either number.
There are no good reasons that I can find, in a healthy population, to get a flu shot. I don’t usually conclude any posts this way, because I believe in parents making their own choices. And of course, if you feel that your risk profile and circumstances are different, then you may choose the flu shot. The evidence, though, is strongly against it for a healthy pediatric population.
Natural Ways to Prevent or Help the Flu
The thing is, there are also plenty of safer, effective natural ways to help prevent or alleviate flu symptoms. Most people do not need more than home care for this minor illness. (And please do not get Tamiflu — I rarely say this — but it only slightly reduces the duration of symptoms and comes with very serious side effects. 36% of children in one study experienced adverse reactions, including 6.8% with insomnia and 12.6% with neuropsychiatric symptoms. And the researchers concluded that this made the drug safe. Wow.)
Using elderberry at the first sign of illness, or even as a preventative measure during flu season, may help prevent or stop the flu. One study showed that elderberry was effective at preventing infection. Another study shows it had a “relatively strong effect.” Another study showed that patients using elderberry four times a day for five days had their symptoms relieved four days sooner than those taking placebo and needed less medication to cope with symptoms.
Please read my full post all about elderberry for more information on its use, plus my elderberry syrup recipe, or amazing cold recipe (based on elderberry). Don’t want a diy version? You can buy our elderberry tincture which is shelf stable and will last all season!
Commercial blends, commonly known as “thieves” blends (Young Living Thieves or DoTERRA OnGuard; other companies make similar blends of cinnamon, clove, sweet orange, ) have been shown to kill the flu virus. Many mothers put a drop of diluted oil on their children’s feet before they leave the house in the morning, and many also diffuse it into the air. I usually diffuse.
Probiotics, or healthy bacteria, are known to improve gut health, which can boost overall immunity. More specifically, probiotics have been shown to reduce viral load and help people get over respiratory viruses faster. Another study found a “modest benefit” of probiotics on respiratory illnesses. Another recent study found that probiotics reduce the duration of illness.
There is evidence that vitamin D supplementation may reduce your risk of the flu. I choose cod liver oil for my family, which contains both vitamins A and D, plus omega-3 fatty acids.
Vitamin C and Zinc
One study shows that high-dose vitamin C plus zinc may reduce your risk of a cold or other respiratory illnesses.
In short, there are lots of valid, safe ways to protect your family without a flu shot. These natural methods do not have serious side effects (for most people) and are effective, as shown by the studies I linked to.
We personally have a blend of elderberry and other herbs that we do multiple times a day at the first sign of illness. We also do cod liver oil and probiotics daily. This has helped to ward off illness for us so far this winter. A couple of people have gotten a minor cold, but most of the family hasn’t gotten anything. (Which, considering we just left a mold-filled house less than two months ago and our immune systems are down, and some of us were dealing with chronic respiratory illness, is pretty amazing.)