To vaccinate or not to vaccinate… that is the question that comes up many times in the fall and winter months. I won’t be starting this post with statistics of how many people are affected by the flu each year because those numbers are highly controversial. Few people are actually checked to see if they truly have a strain of the flu when they present with “flu-like” symptoms. This is especially true when reporting deaths. During the flu season many deaths from pneumonia are listed as pneumonia/flu even though there are over 13 common causes of pneumonia. What we do know for sure is that the flu season peaks in January and February and has the potential to infect a lot of people. The people most at risk for complications from the flu are the very young, elderly and the immunocompromised.
After each flu season scientists sit down and try to predict which strains will predominate the next season and they base vaccinations on those predictions. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. Let’s look at some detailed information to help you make the decision whether or not to vaccinate yourself and/or your family.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends annual vaccination for:
- pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy
- children aged 6 months to 5 years
- elderly individuals (≥65 years of age)
- individuals with chronic medical conditions
- health-care workers
Effectiveness of Vaccine
This comes down to a personal opinion. If more people are vaccinated against the flu it is possible to protect other people from the flu. If you are a healthcare worker or work in close contact with high-risk populations your decision may be different than someone who is not in that situation.
In a Cochrane Database Review from 2012 on vaccines in healthy children this is the authors conclusion:
“Influenza vaccines are efficacious in preventing cases of influenza in children older than two years of age, but little evidence is available for children younger than two years of age. There was a difference between vaccine efficacy and effectiveness, partly due to differing datasets, settings and viral circulation patterns. No safety comparisons could be carried out, emphasizing the need for standardization of methods and presentation of vaccine safety data in future studies. In specific cases, influenza vaccines were associated with serious harms such as narcolepsy and febrile convulsions. It was surprising to find only one study of inactivated vaccine in children under two years, given current recommendations to vaccinate healthy children from six months of age in the USA, Canada, parts of Europe and Australia. If immunization in children is to be recommended as a public health policy, large-scale studies assessing important outcomes, and directly comparing vaccine types are urgently required. The degree of scrutiny needed to identify all global cases of potential harms is beyond the resources of this review. This review includes trials funded by industry. An earlier systematic review of 274 influenza vaccine studies published up to 2007 found industry-funded studies were published in more prestigious journals and cited more than other studies independently from methodological quality and size. Studies funded from public sources were significantly less likely to report conclusions favorable to the vaccines. The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies. The content and conclusions of this review should be interpreted in the light of this finding.”
I urge you to do your own literature search and talk with your doctor asking for studies that show the need and efficacy for vaccinations against influenza. Studies not funded by the company that makes the vaccine would be more objective.
Shot vs Nasal- Spray
The National Vaccine Information Center has a lot of great information on the flu vaccines available and I will try to summarize some of that for you.
IM (shot) Ingredients (vary per manufacturer listed below are ingredients for Fluzone)
- Inactivated virus
- Sodium phosphate
- Octylphenol ethoxylate
- Chicken embryo
- Potassium phosphate
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Gentamicin (antibiotic)
- Live virus
- No preservatives (no mercury)
Many influenza vaccines in the U.S., especially adult vaccines, still contain thimerosal (mercury). There are single vial doses available that don’t require a preservative that have very low levels of thimerosal. This chart from Johns Hopkins lists thimerosal concentrations in vaccines.
Ever wonder why the flu is such a seasonal virus? One reason may be its response to humidity. According to research done by the CDC on relative humidity and the capacity of flu virus to re-infect cells; “higher humidity levels indoors can significantly reduce the infectivity of influenza particles released by coughing.” Therefore, an easy way to help keep us healthier is to make sure the air we are breathing in our homes and offices is kept at 40% humidity or greater. You might also consider adding a few drops of anti-microbial essential oils to your humidifier to keep it from growing mold. Just a few drops of any of the following per tank: oregano, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree, thieves oil, or cinnamon.
If we have heard it once- we have heard it a thousand times. Wash your hands! Hand washing lowers the transmission rate of the flu. This does NOT mean you need to use an anti-bacterial soap or anti-bacterial wipes on your counters, door handles, etc. Simply washing your hands with good ole’ fashioned soap will wash away the virus. A good rule of thumb is to sing ‘happy birthday’ in your head while washing your hands to make sure you get a full 30 seconds.
Another reason why the flu may be more prevalent in the winter months is our lack of vitamin D production. Since this is a fat soluble vitamin our stores dwindle as the winter progresses unless we supplement with vitamin D3. A quick search of the literature will reveal many randomized controlled trials with vitamin D3 and the flu.
Vitamin D3 supplementation with 1200 IU/day in school children during the winter reduced the incidence of the flu.
There is not a particular dosage that will protect yourself or your family. It is important to have your blood level of vitamin D tested so you know what your dose should be.
This mineral does a great job at boosting our immune system in general. We already know that zinc is helpful against the common cold especially when taken soon after you have symptoms. Zinc might also be helpful against the flu. An in-vitro study with influenza infected cells that suggests use of zinc in the early stages of infection can have an inhibitory effect on the virus. As with vitamin D, it makes sense to keep your zinc levels in a healthy range to avoid becoming sick in the first place. The best food sources of zinc are oysters, pumpkin seeds, beef, tahini (ground sesame seeds), unsweetened chocolate, lamb, cashews, and almonds.
Mushrooms contain very potent compounds with a myriad of benefits including immune boosting properties and antiviral capabilities. The Gandoderma species specifically possess in vitro antiviral activity against influenza type A. I recommend that patients consume more Asian mushrooms in the winter months. You can easily add dried mushrooms to soups and stock. To extract the helpful properties you want to cook them in a liquid for at least an hour. You can make stock ahead of time and freeze it as well.
With cooler weather often comes carbohydrate cravings. Try to avoid consuming refined sugar as much as possible. Sugar slows the action of your immune system. Instead, when you need some carbohydrate comfort look to winter squash and whole grains which give you necessary nutrients to keep your body strong. Do your best to eat a whole foods diet rich in vegetables and natural colors.
One of our best defenses against getting sick is having a thriving flora living in our GI. If you enjoy fermented foods like kombucha, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut etc. eat up! If you aren’t into fermented foods make sure you are taking a probiotic supplement.
Lactobacillus plantarum DK119 as a probiotic confers protection against influenza virus by modulating innate immunity.
This study isolated a lactobacillus brevis strain from a traditional Japanese pickle dish and found that continual intake reduced the incidence of the flu in school children.
Daily dietary probiotic supplementation for 6 months was a safe effective way to reduce fever, rhinorrhea, and cough incidence and duration and antibiotic prescription incidence, as well as the number of missed school days attributable to illness, for children 3 to 5 years of age.
Once cold weather hits it can be tempting to hibernate on the couch. Make sure to keep up your exercise routine. Even doing a little yoga every morning alters your gene expression and helps keep you healthy!
Exercise can improve influenza vaccine response.
Whether to vaccinate or not is a personal choice for you and your family. I presented you with many tools that you can use whether or not you choose to vaccinate against the flu. Remember, keeping yourself and your family flu free is about more than just a vaccine. Have a happy, healthy winter!
Dr. Sara Jean Barrett is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and co-founder of Wellness Minneapolis. She is also the Vice President of the Minnesota Association of Naturopathic Physicians and a Member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Click here to learn more about Dr. Barrett.