SEATTLE, January 11, 2013 — It’s the flu season, and according to Dr. Anthony Fouci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, “We are in for what looks like it’s going to be one of the worst flu seasons in nine or 10 years.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of people seeing their health care providers for flu-like symptoms jumped from 2.2 percent last month to 5.6 percent this month.
It seems that we’re warned every year that this will be the worst flu season in years. There were alarming stories about swine flu in the 70s, avian flu (H5N1) in the last few years, and H1N1 (a subtype of the influenza A virus, also called “swine flu”) in 2009. The World Health Organization labeled the 2009 outbreak a “pandemic.”
How serious is this? The 2009 flu killed 17,000 deaths by the end of the year, far short of the 50 million estimated deaths in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic or the 1 million who died in the Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1968-9. To put it in perspective, the 2009 pandemic had a mortality rate of less than 1 percent.
When most people get the flu, they are in bed for a day or two. If they follow a sensible regimen, they’ll rest, not eat much, drink a lot of water, avoid work stress, and get back to real life without any problems. They’ll have fever, chills, runny nose, sore throat, a hacking cough, muscle aches, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
For most of us this won’t be that serious. It is more dangerous for small children and the elderly, and they comprise the vast majority of the fatalities, but even healthy young adults can die if, in their weakened state, they contract a secondary infection.
Many people are afraid of the virus, and rightly so due to the risk of secondary microbial infections, which are especially dangerous for people with compromised immune systems or who spend any time in the hospital. However, people with normal immune response are at very small risk. Only 20 children under 18 have died in the current outbreak in the United States, far fewer than the number who have died in car accidents, drowned, been beaten to death by other children, and fewer than died in Newtown.
Those pediatric deaths are out of almost 30,000 medically diagnosed cases of flu, and for every diagnosed case, there are several others. Most people don’t go to a doctor or the hospital when they get the flu, reckoning (for the most part correctly) that they’re better off resting at home.
Reporters are over dramatizing this story. Yes, the flu can be serious, but it’s far from a disaster. Flu rates seem to be stabilizing (we won’t know for sure for several weeks), and the public health crisis is probably generated as much by people flooding into hospitals in panic as by anything else.
You should give your body more respect and not spend time worrying about the flu. You should eat better food, drink more water, learn to manage stress, exercise, sleep well. If you’re in a risk group (if you’re elderly, have a compromised immune system, or work in a hospital or a school), you should think very carefully about vaccination, but before you roll up your sleeve, do your homework to understand the costs and benefits.
The flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, not even close. There are multiple strains of the virus being passed around, and protection from one isn’t protection from all the others.
A study published in the October 2008 issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine found that vaccinating children younger than five against the flu had no significant impact on flu-related hospitalizations or doctor visits during the previous two flu seasons. The research wasn’t proof that flu vaccines don’t work in children, and the researchers pointed out that further research should be done with vaccines that match the current flu strains, but it failed to show that the vaccines were effective.
A 2008 study published in the Lancet found that influenza vaccination was not associated with a reduced risk of pneumonia in the elderly. This finding was interesting in conjunction with an earlier study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, which showed that the pneumonia vaccine does not reduce the risk of pneumonia in that group, either.
Other academic and medical research has demonstrated that flu vaccines are not an effective means of reducing influenza deaths.
If the benefits of flu vaccination are less than we had thought, are the costs greater? Vaccines are known to cause “rare” but lethal allergic reactions. They contain thimerisol as a preservative, a mercury compound to which some people are highly sensitive. Formaldehyde, chick embryo cells, and antibiotics are other ingredients that can potentially cause reactions in vaccine recipients. There are no strong studies showing that flu vaccines produce significantly more or fewer deaths than they prevent, but you should be aware that they prevent fewer deaths than many believe, and they do cause some deaths.
So, should you get the flu vaccine or get it for your children? The CDC says “yes, everyone should get it.” But this is a decision you should make in an informed way. Whether you should get the vaccine depends on your general health, your sensitivity to flu vaccine ingredients, and the likelihood that you’ll be exposed to the virus. The answer isn’t an automatic “yes,” however. Your best course of action is to take care of yourself. Your body is a remarkable, highly complex machine. Show it some respect and treat it well. That’s always a better approach than taking medications that don’t have a clear, positive net benefit.
Dr Peter Lind practices metabolic and neurologic chiropractic in his wellness clinic in Salem, Oregon. USA. He is the author of 3 books on health, one novel, and hundreds of wellness articles. His clinical specialty is in physical, nutritional, and emotional stress.
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