You can’t call a pharmacy these days without hearing a chirpy voice imploring, “Protect yourself from the flu. Stop by and get your flu shot from a certified vaccinating pharmacist!” Doctors, schools, billboards, TV ads—everyone is pushing the flu vaccine, so it must be great, right?
Wrong. In 2014, scientists reviewed all the studies comparing outcomes in healthy adults and pregnant women who had flu shots with those who had received a placebo or no intervention. This comprehensive review, involving 90 studies and more than 9 million people, concluded that the flu vaccine has a “very modest effect” in reducing flu symptoms and sick days—and no effect at all on preventing hospitalization or serious adverse events.
For people over age 65, the available evidence was of such poor quality that the researchers couldn’t determine if the flu vaccine was protective or not. For children, the evidence was somewhat stronger, except for the very young—just one study supported its use in kids under age two.
Yet every man, woman, and child six months and older is urged to get vaccinated.
Other Concerns About the Flu Vaccine
I have other concerns about the flu vaccine. In past years it’s been associated with hundreds of cases of neurological disorders such as Guillan-Barre syndrome. In addition, several studies have demonstrated that the flu vaccine actually weakens the immune system. Furthermore, vigorously held assertions to the contrary, giving healthy workers flu shots provides no economic benefits whatsoever when the costs of vaccination are compared to the costs of flu-related sick days and medical care.
Finally, the flu vaccine certainly doesn’t protect against the numerous other bugs that cause the majority of respiratory infections during cold and flu season.
Flu Vaccine Doesn’t Prevent Pneumonia
Although no one wants to deal with congestion, cough, fever and other miseries of the flu, symptoms are usually short-lived and not particularly serious. Far more worrisome are complications such as bacterial pneumonia, which causes most of the thousands of annual deaths that are chalked up to the flu. The flu vaccine is purported to reduce hospitalization by a third and cut deaths in half. But this notion has been shot down as well.
A study published in The Lancet found that the flu vaccine does not reduce risk of pneumonia in people older than 65. In fact, during peak flu season, pneumonia rates were actually higher in vaccinated individuals. The researchers concluded that this lack of benefit means one of two things: Either influenza is not a primary cause of pneumonia or the flu vaccine is ineffective.
Let me make it clear that this study involved people over 65 living on their own. Previous research suggests that the flu vaccine may be advisable for frail older people in assisted living facilities.
But for most of us—and that includes children—the current scientific research doesn’t even come close to supporting the wildly overblown claims about the value of the flu vaccine.
What About Other Common Recommendations for Avoiding the Flu?
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, another common recommendation is to avoid infection by keeping your distance from sick people and washing your hands often. This is good advice, but as one study demonstrated, avoiding bugs is harder than it seems.
To determine the rate and extent of viral spread, researchers from the University of Arizona, Tucson applied inactivated “tracer viruses” (similar to norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting) on a single doorknob or tabletop in offices, conference rooms, and health care facilities. Within two to four hours, the virus was detected on 40–60 percent of the light switches, countertops, coffee pots, phones, keyboards, and other surfaces—and on a similar percentage of workers’ and visitors’ hands.
Cold and flu viruses are even more contagious because they also spread through the air. MIT scientists found that tiny droplets expelled in coughs and sneezes travel 200 times farther than previously believed. And flu viruses can spread up to six feet even without a cough or sneeze. Of course, you should practice good hygiene. In the Arizona study, scrupulous use of antiviral disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers reduced contamination by 80–99 percent. But unless you hole up at home all winter, it’s hard to avoid exposure to seasonal viruses.
Safe, Effective Alternatives to the Flu Vaccine
Therefore, your best bet is to increase your immune system’s chances of successfully fighting off infections. Get plenty of sleep. Eat right and exercise moderately. And take a good multivitamin, and at least 2,000 mg of vitamin C daily in divided doses. It has both antiviral and antibacterial activity, and it boosts the immune system.
I also recommend adding N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which is a precursor to glutathione, the body’s preeminent antioxidant. Italian researchers recruited older people who had not had flu shots but were considered to be high risk because of chronic non-respiratory diseases. They were randomly divided into two groups and given either 600 mg of NAC or a placebo twice a day for six months during the fall and winter. Although exposure to the prevailing viral strains was similar in both groups, just 25 percent of those taking NAC developed symptomatic flu versus 79 percent in the placebo group.
Other proven immune-enhancing supplements include zinc (30–60 mg per day), vitamin D, and probiotics.
Vitamin D is particularly important because your body’s natural production of this vitamin, which produces antimicrobial compounds called cathelicidins and defensins, plummets during the winter—at the same time infectious diseases surge. Studies show solid links between vitamin D blood levels and risk of influenza, pneumonia, ear infections, and other viral and bacterial illnesses. I’ve found that 2,000–5,000 IU of vitamin D daily works for most people. But your best bet is to have your blood level of vitamin D (25(OH)D) tested and take enough supplemental vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) to keep it in the optimal range of 50–80 ng/mL.
Although probiotics are best known for their effects on gastrointestinal health, these beneficial bacteria are also a boon for the immune system. In one study, children who took probiotic supplements daily for six months had significant reductions in fever, runny nose, and cough incidence and duration; antibiotic prescriptions; and days missed from school. Look for a high-quality probiotic supplement that contains multiple strains of beneficial bacteria with a delivery system that keeps them alive and intact until they reach your intestinal tract, and use as directed.
If You Do Get Sick…
If you do get the flu, your doctor will probably prescribe Tamiflu or Relenza, the only two FDA-approved antiviral drugs.
According to an April 2014 review based on data previously withheld or intentionally hidden by Big Pharma, the most that can be expected of these drugs is shortening of the duration of flu symptoms by half a day. There is no evidence they reduce pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, hospital admissions, or person-to-person spread of the flu. But they do cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and psychiatric disturbances and decrease natural immunity.
Yet aggressive marketing and unsubstantiated claims—outright lies, actually—made by drug makers led countries around the world to spend billions stockpiling antivirals in preparation for an influenza pandemic. Folks, this is fraud of the worst kind. They’ve already siphoned off billions of taxpayer dollars. Don’t waste your money on these worthless drugs.
Most of us suffer through mild to moderate colds and flu with rest, boxes of tissues, over-the-counter therapies such as echinacea and the homeopathic flu remedy Oscillococcinum, chicken soup, and, if we’re lucky, a little TLC. And we come through it just fine. If you’re really sick, however, I suggest you temporarily increase your intake of vitamins D (50,000 IU per day for three days) and C (500 mg every two to three hours)—and find a clinic that offers IV vitamin C.
During the cold and flu season, our IV department at Whitaker Wellness is filled with patients relaxing in recliners, reading, or chatting as they get their infusions of high-dose vitamin C. One of these patients, Marie F., reports, “I come to the Whitaker clinic for vitamin drips when I first begin to feel achy or stuffed up. I rarely get much worse, and I haven’t missed work in the five years since I learned about IV vitamin C.” To learn more about IV vitamin C and other therapies at Whitaker Wellness, call (866) 642-1018.
The Choice Is Yours
While I can’t make the decision for you of whether or not to get a flu shot, I strongly encourage you to discuss this information with your physician and decide for yourself if you’re an appropriate candidate for the flu vaccine. And, regardless of your decision, for maximum protection, beef up your supplement program during the cold and flu season.