Should You Get A Flu Shot and What’s The Alternative?
Should you get a flu shot or double up your efforts to make your immune system more robust? Make up your mind quickly, as the flu season is upon us and this one is particularly bad. Here I offer you some information to consider so you can make the right decision for yourself and your family.
Flu widespread throughout the nation, 30 children dead!
Not to be outdone, my hometown paper declares:
Flu hammers Marin County!
Yes, as you probably have heard by now, this year’s “Flu Season” has already either met or exceeded past statistics for its virulence, number of people hospitalized and killed.
It’s enough to make you hide under the bed and eschew any handshake. Maybe even hold your breath.
Or you could get vaccinated, wash your hands a lot and boost your immune system.
We’ll dig into all that in a bit. But first I’ll present a video courtesy of SciShow about the flu for those of you who rather watch than read. Then we’ll examine what’s happening this Flu Season, what’s at stake and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
Click here for the video transcript.
If you’re feeling under the weather, tired, achy with a cough or runny nose, possibly feverish… well first of all I hope you feel better soon, cuz that sucks.
If it’s more than cold you might have influenza or the flu and even if you’re feeling fine there’s a good chance you know someone who isn’t.
Flu season is picking up steam and it’s turning out to be a pretty bad year for North America especially in the US. As of the first week of January flu was widespread in virtually every part of the US along with some parts of southern Canada.
In the United States, we’re three-quarters of the way to the number of cases three years ago, which was one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory.
Why is this year any worse than normal?
The simple answer is that more than substantial percent of the flu virus is making the rounds — at least in the US — are a subtype called H3N2, which tends to not only make more people sick but to make more of them very sick, which means more hospitalizations and deaths.
Researchers don’t have everything entirely figured out but they do know that there are at least a couple of reasons for this. The first has to do with the fact that H3N2 viruses are tricky to vaccinate against.
You might know that flu viruses come in a few different main flavors with various names. The H stands for hemagglutinin and the N stands for neuraminidase, both proteins.
Each type of these proteins gets a number like H or N. Since the proteins are on the outside of the virus they are what your immune cells see and respond to if you get infected, but for that very same reason if flu viruses mutate changing what these proteins look like, the virus can escape your immune response and get off scot-free
This is called antigenic drift and it’s why you need a new vaccine every year since flu viruses are changing all the time. Scientists have to make an educated guess as to which specific viruses are likely to circulate in a given season and then make a seasonal flu shot that will protect against those three or four strains.
In the case of HN this is especially hard to do because those viruses mutate even more quickly than their cousins. That means there’s a higher chance that in the six months or so between when the scientists choose the strains in their vaccine and when the flu season starts the virus could have changed. It mutates so quickly that the virus can even shift during the flu season.
A second complication is that in recent years the HN viruses we’ve wanted to vaccinate against are ones that don’t grow very well in chicken eggs. That becomes a problem because almost all flu shots are made by growing lots of virus in eggs and to grow well the virus can mutate to adapt to chicken cells and that’s all fine and dandy if it’s not a part of the virus that matters ,but if the mutation changes one of those main surface proteins like hemagglutinin, it could make the vaccine much less effective.
This appears to have been what happened last season and it’s almost certainly the case this year as well. Researchers were puzzled because the last season’s HN stream was well matched but that part of the vaccine was only about ten percent effective.
Virologists looking at the issue realized the hemagglutinin protein that ended up in the vaccine was missing an important spot on it that had a sugar attached that change made it easier for the virus to infect chicken cells but it no longer looked as much like the virus that was infecting people, so the antibodies people made in response to the vaccine weren’t as good at clearing out the real virus.
The other unfortunate aspect of HN viruses is that they take an especially heavy toll on the elderly. Flu is usually worse for older people — they’re often frail or sick with other things and their immune systems simply aren’t as robust but H3N2 viruses take this to the extreme.
Researchers have a pretty interesting idea for why that is, although it hasn’t been proven. It’s called original antigenic sin or imprinting and the idea is that how well you respond to the flu depends on which flu viruses your immune system sees first.
Whatever you were first exposed to as a kid your immune system knows super well and can handle with relative ease. Less so with later strains they might look enough like the ones you were exposed to earlier in life to trigger the same response, but because the virus is different it’s not as good a defense.
People over the age of 50 didn’t grow up seeing these viruses, which could mean their immune systems are really better suited to fight off different types of flu and explain why they’re more susceptible to HN viruses now.
So with HN you have a flu subtype that’s potentially more deadly simply because of timing and age and the vaccine that’s less effective, but the takeaway here should not be to skip your flu shot if you haven’t gotten it yet, especially since flu season is nowhere near over. It usually Peaks around February and doesn’t end until May.
The vaccine still protects against other types of flu which are also circulating and even reduced effectiveness is better than no effectiveness especially if you’re at risk, because it can mean if you do get sick it won’t be as bad.
By getting vaccinated you will also protect those around you through what’s known as herd immunity. If enough people have even partial protection that can cut down on the total amount of flu going around and make it less likely that people who can’t get the shot will catch it like infants and those with weakened immune systems.
So if you feel like you particularly don’t need the flu shot for yourself think about the fact that you will become a vector who may infect someone who can’t get that protection so go get jabbed and you know who else does good things for people around them.
Why Influenza H3N2 Is Different
Flu, also referred to as influenza, is a contagious, viral illness that causes mild to severe symptoms that can sometimes lead to death.
(Remember, it’s viral, so forget about antibiotics which are for bacterial infections, not viruses.)
According to the aforementioned CNN article, influenza activity has increased and is now widespread in 49 states — all except Hawaii — for the week ending January 13, bringing the season total to 74,562 so far. These numbers do not include all people who have had the flu, as many do not see a doctor when sick.
As Dr. Amber Robins told PBS Newshour’s John Yang:
This season is bad because, this year, we’re seeing more people with influenza A.
Now, in the past, we have seen a season with influenza A means that we have more cases of the flu, we have more hospitalizations and ultimately more deaths because of the flu. And so that is a concern this year, as influenza A is the predominant flu strand.
The particular influenza A substrain Dr. Robins refers to is H3N2. It’s the dominant strain this season so far, and is known to cause more hospitalizations and deaths than other familiar strains.
The New York Times printed useful background information about H3N2, as well as Q&A about it, that I’ll summarize.
The H3N2 strain first emerged in Hong Kong in 1968. Within one year it killed an estimated 1 million people worldwide. Since then H3N2 has been mutating. This strain is a component of every season’s flu shot, so partial immunity is widespread.
Hospitals in Southern California and central Texas have seen so many flu patients that they had to set up triage tents or turn patients away, but throughout the rest of the U.S. there have not been reports of insufficient antiviral medications, patients dying because a city ran out of respirators, or other signs of a major crisis.
The CDC estimates that even in a mild year, flu kills about 12,000 Americans. In a bad year, that number soars up to 56,000. Most of those deaths are among the elderly, but flu also kills middle-aged adults weakened by underlying health problems such as heart or lung disease, diabetes, immune suppression or obesity.
A virulent flu like H3N2 is also dangerous for pregnant women, children under five years of age and children with asthma.
And if you’re hale, you aren’t necessarily immune. Every season, flu and its complications, including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, kill some apparently healthy people, notably those of a 21-year-old fitness buff in Latrobe, Pa., a mother of three in San Jose, Calif., and a 10-year-old hockey player in New Canaan, Conn.
All this begs the question:
Should you get a flu shot?
The NYT’s Q&A answers that question, in part, by answering two of their own:
- Does this year’s flu shot work?
- Is it worth getting the flu shot?
I’ll answer those two questions next and then speak to something that the NYT does not — what to do if you have no intention of getting the flu shot (which happens to be my choice)?
Should You Get A Flu Shot?
I think the answer to this question needs to address the effectiveness of the flu shot and the potential harm, if any.
I’m not going to embrace the anti-vaccination perspective, nor dismiss it; rather, I’m going to presume that the likelihood that it’s detrimental to your health is very slim. That’s not to say that nobody will be damaged by flu vaccination, but that the vast majority will not.
In this context, the NYT answers the two questions thus…
Does this year’s flu shot work?
The H3N2 component in the flu shot is a bad match for the circulating strain. Australia just had a severe flu season with many deaths, and the vaccine there had the same mismatch. Experts estimated that the vaccine prevented infection only ten percent of the time. In the U.S. the shot’s efficacy hasn’t been calculated because the virus is still spreading, but experts expect it to be about 30 percent.
In Australia, vaccination failed partially because it’s urged for only the most vulnerable, while in the United States millions of healthy people are vaccinated. This result speaks to the “herd immunity” concept addressed toward the end of the above video.
“By getting vaccinated you will also protect those around you through what’s known as herd immunity. If enough people have even partial protection that can cut down on the total amount of flu going around and make it less likely that people who can’t get the shot will catch it like infants and those with weakened immune systems.”
Is it worth getting the flu shot anyway?
The reason: Even if the shot does not prevent you from catching the flu, it may save you from dying of it. It takes about two weeks to build immunity, but it’s still not too late if that’s what you want, because the virus persists all winter and into spring.
Not dying from H3N2 might be the most cogent argument.
Dr. David Perlmutter details in his article about flu vaccine effectiveness that you’re being misled by the ads that indicate one shot and immune. He’s done his research and put together this graphic:
No, the flu shot doesn’t seem to be a panacea.
That said, if your health is already impaired, you might lean toward the flu shot, all other things being equal.
In the CNN article, Dr. Brahim Ardolic, chairman of emergency medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City, underscores that the most vulnerable are people who are already battling various chronic diseases:
“To be honest, in the US today, there’s so many people walking around with at least one comorbidity — diabetes or hypertension or congestive heart failure or COPD — you’re talking about a tremendous number of people.”
He added that these people are requiring “pretty significant therapy.”
“We have multiple 45-year-olds with diabetes who required admission to the hospital. We’ve had multiple 62-year-olds who are in the ICU with pneumonia on antibiotics and even on ventilator therapy.”
In the end, the question of “should you get a flu shot?” is yours to answer, hopefully armed with enough information about your particular vulnerability.
As I’ve already said, I’m not going to get a flu shot, nor have I ever. I may be fooling myself, but I’m relying on two things:
- My history — I haven’t been sick (flu or otherwise) for over a decade; and
- My immune system boosting protocol. (See below.)
What To Do If You Say “No” To The Flu Shot
I’ve addressed this at length in my article, How You Can Prevent the Flu and Common Cold, Say 3 Doctors.
Here’s what’s covered in that article:
- What you should know about the cold and flu;
- Your chances of getting the cold or flu;
- Dr. Mercola’s advice on building up your immune system (watch);
- Dr. Axe’s 5 top remedies for the common cold and flu (watch);
- Dr. Klinghardt’s innovative approach to preventing and treating the flu; and
- What I just did to stop the cold/flu dead in its tracks, sorta speak.
For those of you who rather not wade into another article, just click over to it and scroll down to the list of immune boosting supplements and activities advocated by the three doctors profiled.
I also included my own protocol in the flu prevention article, which includes:
- Crushed garlic cloves covered in almond butter, two every two hours, four times.
- Host Defense MyCommunity mushroom extract, per the instructions on the bottle.
- Olive Leaf Extract, per the instructions on the bottle.
- The homeopathic Oscillococcinum from Boiron, per instructions on the bottle.
- A detox bath.
Click here for detox bath instructions.
1. Fill up a tub with hot water.
2. If you have a window in the bathroom, crack it a bit.
3. Pour 1 cup of baking soda, 1 cup of sea salt and 1 heaping tablespoon of ginger powder* into the tub.
4. Fetch a big glass of purified water (over 8 oz if available) and mix in trace minerals if you have them (if not, no worries).
5. Grab your loofah (skin brush sponge-thingie).
Now, do this:
1. Take btwn 250 and 500 milligrams of regular Niacin** and wait for the flush.***
2. Swirl around the water mixture… add more hot water if needed.
3. Get in the tub.
4. Soak a bit and then scrub yourself from head to toe with the loofah (no soap).
5. Rest and repeat the scrubbing three times… stay in the tub for at least 20 minutes.
6. Take a shower and scrub head to toe with soap and the loofah, rinse and shine.
* Be careful with the ginger powder as it can “burn” if too much is used, particularly in sensitive areas of the body. I suggest you start with 1 tablespoon and add when ready. If the amount you use does not produce some heat (other than temperature) in the tub, add more.
** Niacin comes in two forms (that I know about): the stuff that allows the capillaries in your skin to be flushed with blood (which can feel uncomfortable, like a sunburn), or non-flush. You want the flush kind, such as Solgar Niacin. Be careful with the amount, because the flushing can be uncomfortable (although the detox bath alleviates this quite a bit). 250 milligrams may be too much on an empty stomach. I use 500 milligrams, but I’m accustomed to this craziness.
*** Have I said enough about “flushing”? If you don’t like the feeling of being sunburned, be careful with the amount of Niacin you take (see above). Same thing with the ginger powder (see above).
Hope this helps!