Influenza 2017: The Year of the Ineffective Vaccine

by Edward R. Rosick, DO, MPH, DABIHM

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The news was reported in the January 16 edition of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report (MMWR):This years influenza vaccine is only 23% effective across all age groups.(1) While some people may scoff at this and say “the flu vaccine is only 50-60% effective even in the best of years; so what if it doesn’t work well this year?” my thoughts as a physician aren’t as caviler. While modern medicine has eradicated many deadly diseases of our grandparents time such as polio and smallpox, influenza is still a grim reminder that nature, in the end, is still our master. And in the case of influenza, it can be a deadly master.

Influenza, with its multitude of symptoms including fever, fatigue, intense body aches, and cough, is not an illness to scoff at. This is a disease that 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.(2) 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.

Want further proof that influenza is a deadly illness? Proof is no further away then daily headlines in Newspapers. Here’s one from USA Today on January 9, 2015: “26 children have died from flu as outbreak widens.”(3) Here’s another USA Today headline, this time from January 16: “Across the country, flu takes toll on elderly.”(4) The bottom line is that influenza is a killer, and this year, with the vaccine not covering the majority of influenza viruses circulating, it has the potential to be even more deadly.

So what can you do to help protect yourself and those you love? First off, while over-the-counter medicines can help treat some of the more common symptoms of influenza, such as body aches, fever, and cough, they do nothing to help get rid of the virus. In fact, some of them contain ingredients that can make you drowsy and groggy, something that’s definitely not needed when you’re sick with the flu! Instead, my first recommendation is to still get the influenza vaccine. “Wait a minute,” many of you are probably saying, “you just told us that the vaccine doesn’t work!” Actually, what I said was that it’s not very effective against the majority of influenza viruses spreading around the country; however, it does seem to be effective against other strains of the flu that may pop up later in the flu season.

Next, 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 to take vitamin D, which 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 are 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, or increase the effectiveness, 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) Finally, ground-breaking studies are showing us that even certain parts of probiotics can help enhance your immune system.

A recent article in the journal Probiotics and Health showed that mice given a Del-Immune V, a supplement containing active parts of the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus V had a statistically significant increase in blood levels of chemicals known as cytokines, which are known to be part of the immune system when compared to mice that were not given the probiotic formulation.(8)

Influenza is a deadly illness that has been ravaging the human race for centuries, and this year is no different. However, by keeping your immune system strong, you can give yourself a chance to ward off this ancient enemy and enjoy the beginning of a new year.

1. Early estimates of seasonal influenza vaccine effectiveness-United States, January 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2015; 64(01): 10=15.

2. Tosh PK, Jacobson RM, Poland GA. Influenza vaccines: from surveillance through production to protection. Mayo Clin Proc 2010;85(3): 257-73.

3. Szabo,L. 26 Children have died from flu as outbreak widens. USA Today, January 9, 2015.

4. Hughes,T. Across the country, flu takes its toll on elderly. USA Today, January 16, 2015.

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.

8. Sichel L, Timoshok NA, Pidgorskyy VS, Spivak NY. Study of interferonogenous activity of the new probiotic formulation Del-Immune V. Probiotics and Health 2013; 1(2): 1-6.