The Influenza Vaccine: Facts, Fallacies and How to Stay Healthy this Flu Season

by Edward R. Rosick, DO, MPH, DABIHM

Flu Season Ahead Yield SignIt seems to be everywhere–on television, the radio, even on advertisements in the theatre before the movie starts. “Have you gotten your influenza vaccine yet?” the ads generally start of with. “The flu season is here–don’t wait to be protected! Get your vaccine now!”

It almost seems that it’s our patriotic duty to go the the doctor’s office and get poked–or for those of you averse to needles, to get the intranasal spray–and that if we don’t we’re made to feel that we’re not doing our part for society. Yet there a good number of people–some of them respected physicians and scientists–who say that the flu vaccine’s effectiveness is inflated at best, with some suggesting it’s downright dangerous. With these conflicting messages, how is the average person to known what they should do?

To start with, let’s discuss the truly dangerous nature of influenza, whether it be H1N1, type A or type B. Influenza–with its multitude of symptoms including fever, fatigue, intense body aches, and cough– causes over 200,000 hospitalizations a year; out of those hospitalizations, deaths from influenza have actually increased over the past decades, from 7,000-32,000 deaths attributable to influenza in the 1970s to 36,000-72,000 a year currently.(1) Researchers believe that this increase in deaths is driven by a number of factors, including the increasing age of our population (which is more susceptible to influenza), along with the ease and speed the flu can spread across the globe.(1)

“But wait a minute–if there’s a greater push for people to get the flu vaccine, and yet you’re telling us that more and more people are dying from influenza, doesn’t that mean that the vaccine isn’t working?” some of you more astute readers might be asking. My response would be that’s a very good question, and one that scientists ponder constantly. First off, it’s always wise to remember that association doesn’t always mean causation. It might–but might not. Second, the flu vaccine, as grounded in science as it is, is not perfect. In fact, studies show us that it’s–at times–far from perfect. How well the vaccine works can vary considerably from year to year, with efficacy ranging anywhere from 30 to 80%.(2,3,4) In fact, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) sent out a health advisory to physicians on December 4th, informing us that it appears there is significant antigenic shift for influenza type A happening this year. What that means in layman’s terms is that the viral composition of influenza has changed and thus, this years vaccine may very well not be that effective. The bottom line is that we in the medical and scientific community can only know for sure how well the vaccine works after the current flu season is over.

Yet even with this degree of uncertainty, I still recommend that the vast majority of my patients get the flu vaccine. Even though I can’t tell them that it will be 100 percent effective, I do know the consequences of getting influenza, with those being everything from feeling miserable and missing many days at work to being hospitalized and dying. Decreasing those odds by even 40% seem wise to me! Current CDC guidelines for the influenza vaccine state that those aged 6 months or older should receive an influenza vaccine this flu season; the type and number of vaccines needed (one or two, inactivated or live attenuated) can be determined by your healthcare provider, who can (or should!) give you the latest recommendations based upon your age and health.

“But I like doing things naturally,” some of you might be saying. “Isn’t there something that I can take that can lessen my chances of getting the flu?” The answer to that very reasonable questions, is yes. Despite the reluctance (and in my opinion, hubris and ignorance) of the mainstream medical community, there are scientifically valid, natural ways that you can boost both your own immune system to provide defense against the flu, and, amazingly enough, boost the efficiency of the flu vaccine itself.

One of the first things I discuss with my patients in regards to protecting themselves against the ravages of the flu is their vitamin D status. Vitamin D– also known as the sunshine vitamin since our bodies actually make vitamin D from sunshine (which unfortunately is pretty much non-present here in the midwest during the months of November to February)–has been shown in multiple studies to help protect people against a variety of illnesses, including the flu. A recent review article in the journal American Society for Nutrition examined the latest science behind vitamin Ds influenza-fighting properties (5). After discussing various studies examining vitamin Ds effect on the immune system, inflammation, and blood levels, they concluded “The evidence for an association between vitamin D and the risk of influenza exits…”

Besides vitamin D, another supplement that can keep you healthy during the flu season is probiotics, or good bacteria. These are found in certain foods like yogurt or kefir (as well as in some fermented foods such as sauerkraut) but can also be taken as supplements. Studies are showing us that probiotics can potentially provide protection against this debilitating virus as well as potentiate the effects of the influenza vaccine. A recent article in the journal Nutrition examined several studies on probiotics and their ability to help prevent the flu, with the authors concluding …”it appears that probiotics, (at least those investigated thus far in clinical trials)…can decrease the incidence and duration of the common cold and influenza, as well as decrease the severity of the symptoms.”(6) Interestingly enough, studies have shown that probiotics can also potentiate, or help the influenza vaccine work more effectively. An article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition detailed the results of a double-blinded, randomized and placebo controlled trial of using a probiotic as an influenza vaccine potentiator. Results of the study showed that probiotics can help potentiate the influenza vaccine, thus making it more effective in doing its job in protecting patients from getting the disease.(7)

Influenza is no laughing matter. I’ve had it once in my life and never hope to get it again. Through vaccination, vitamin D supplementation and probiotics, you can also significantly lessen your chances of becoming another influenza statistic and have a happy and healthy winter season.
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1. Tosh PK, Jacobson RM, Poland GA. Influenza vaccines: from surveillance through production to protection. Mayo Clin Proc 2010;85(3): 257-73.

2. Monto AS, Ohmit SE, Petrie JG et al. Comparative efficacy of inactivated and live attunated influenza vaccines NEJM 2009; 361: 1260-67.

3. Ohmit SE, Victor JC, Rotthoff JR et al. Prevention of antigenically drifted influenza by inactivated and live attunated vaccines. NEJM 2006; 355: 2513-22.

4. CDC website. Flu Vaccine effectiveness : Questions and answers for the health professionals.

5. Sundaram ME, Coleman LA. Vitamin D and influenza. Amer Soc Nutrition 2012; 3: 517-25.

6. Editorial–Can probiotics prevent or improve common cold and influenza? Nutrition 2013; 29: 805-806.

7. Davidson LE, Fiorino AM, Syndman DR, Hibberd PL. Lactobacillus CG as an Immune Adjuvant for live attenuated influenza vaccine in healthy adults: a randomized double blind placebo controlled trial. Eur Jour Nutri 2011; 65(4): 501-507.