The ‘flu shot’, or influenza vaccine is being widely touted again. Winter every year causes incidences of influenza to rise, and there is no doubt that getting the flu is not much fun. Following on from my last article regarding the dubious benefits of Tamiflu, I thought I would give you the real low down on the flu vaccine.
What is the flu?
The flu is a virus that attacks the body causing symptoms such as headaches, muscle pains, nausea, chills/fevers, and general fatigue and discomfort. It has some similar symptoms to a common cold, but generally more severe. Most experts believe it is spread by droplets exhaled when people sneeze or cough, or even just talking…and the range can be up to 2 metres.
When I was doing further research for this article, I found a New Zealand website called fightflu.co.nz. This website comes up in any search and is run by a group called the NISG – National Influenza Specialist Group. The group contains various doctors as well as two representatives of the drug companies who make the flu vaccines. Despite some of the group being employees of the vaccine manufacturers – whose goal must be to shift as much vaccine as possible, the NISG states it is a non-profit organisation. In the United States it is standard practice for giant businesses to use supposedly ‘independent’ organistaions to further their interests. Their marketers know that a ‘third party’ endorsements or statements by such organisations are much more powerful than making statements about their own products. I don’t see how a group can be called non-profit when some of its principal participants are there to promote the interest of the drug companies, whose agenda must be to sell as many doses of vaccine as possible.
From the flightflu.co.nz website, the stated goal of the group is to promote the benefits of immunisation for ‘those most at risk’. Those words are very important. Those ‘most at risk’ from influenza are elderly, children, people who are obese, or people who have lung problems (such as asthma). People most at risk are not healthy adults under the age of 65. But a quick look at the FAQ’s of this website suggests a different story – FAQ’s explaining why it should be given to ‘healthy adults’. A second FAQ – the only FAQ that states how effective the vaccine is – says that in years when there is a ‘good match’ between the flu strains going around, and the flu strains included in that years vaccine, it can prevent flu in 80% of cases – again, this data is only for ‘healthy adults’.
As their stated goal (from their website) is to promote the use of the vaccines for those ‘most at risk’, why don’t the FAQ’s actually state the benefits for those ‘most at risk’? ie Elderly people or people with asthma? I believe the reason is easily explained; the benefits appear greatest in healthy adults – because healthy adults have healthier immune systems. The supposed benefits are not listed for people in high risk groups, as no amount of statistical manipulation can demonstrate that they are effective for these groups.
To explain some of this I need to give you a brief run-down of how the vaccines are made. Every year the manufacturers choose 3-4 strains of the flu that they hope will be the dominant strains in the coming flu season. It’s a lottery. There are many more strains of flu than are covered by the vaccine. The vaccine is comprised of deactivated ‘dead’ fragments of the virus. Your body then produces the antibodies for those specific strains which are meant to protect you by fighting the virus – if you get it. The process of making the next years flu shot takes time, so if a new strain crops up there is quite a long lead-time before a new vaccine can be made. For the vaccine to have a chance of working, the strains you are vaccinated for needs to match the strains in that year’s flu as closely as possible.
Does the flu vaccine work at all?
The CDC (Centre for Disease Control) in the United States says that it does. I believe they are essentially a cheer leader for the flu vaccine manufacturers. It is implausible that they could not be aware of the Cochrane Groups independent reviews of the vaccines questioning their efficacy at every level. They actually quote different figures for the efficacy of the vaccines than the New Zealand Group (NISG); they say that vaccine effectiveness is ‘reduced’ in studies of the elderly – one of the prime risk groups. Their figures also state the vaccine can reduce incidences of the flu by 60% in ‘recent studies’. Selecting recent studies to base a decision introduces bias, why not include all the studies?
The Cochrane Group is a not-for-profit, independent group of scientists from 100 countries. They review trials for medical interventions (pharmaceutical drugs and others) to determine whether they actually work, and are safe. Here is a summary of their findings regarding influenza vaccines.
Flu Vaccines use in Healthy Adults
As drug companies have been touting the benefits of vaccinating healthy people (because vaccinating everyone is much more profitable than vaccinating just those who are classed as ‘high risk’) The Cochrane Group did a systematic review on whether it was effective in healthy people. The review found that in an average year, where there is a partial match between the strain of flu going around, and the vaccine, 100 people needed to be vaccinated in order to prevent one single instance of the flu. They also found that the vaccine had no effect the number of people hospitalised or working days lost, but did cause one case of Guillian-Barré syndrome (a major neurological condition leading to paralysis) for every one million vaccinations.
They issued a warning, that this result is likely ‘more optimistic’ as to the flu vaccines benefits because of the 36 studies reviewed, 15 were funded by industry, and 4 were undeclared. They stated that studies funded from public sources were ‘significantly less likely’ to report conclusions favourable to the vaccines than industry funded studies. The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin and that there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies. What all this means is that instead of vaccinating 100 healthy adults to stop a single instance of the flu, you probably need to vaccinate a much greater number of people. You can read it all here – there is a plain language section.
Flu vaccine use in people over 65
The Cochrane Groups 2010 assessment of over 40 years of data states that there is ‘insufficient evidence’ to recommend elderly people get flu shots. They state that the 75 studies reviewed were mostly ‘observational’ studies which are of greater risk of bias. They also state that to resolve whether they have any benefit, then large publicly funded trials need to be run.
Flu Vaccine for people with asthma
There may be some benefit for asthmatics to get a flu shot, but there remains the possibility that the flu shot can worsen symptoms of asthma.
As you can see there appears to be little evidence to warrant getting flu shots. If you stack the Cochrane data up vs. what you will find on the New Zealand fightflu.co.nz website, you will wonder if they are discussing the same vaccines. Most of the studies claiming the vaccines work are funded by the drug companies who make them, and that simply means you can’t trust them. There might be some evidence that they can be of small benefit to at risk groups, but there is insufficient evidence to even make this small claim. Again, we are told to trust our doctors advice because it’s founded in ‘evidence based medicine’, but you can see from the Cochrane reviews, the vaccines do not meet that threshold. I am not ‘anti’ all vaccines and this article is not about the vaccine safety debate, it’s just about the flu shot, which I believe to be a colossal waste of tax-payers money and time. Flu vaccines appear to be a cash cow for the manufacturers and they have been foisted on a trusting, non-scientific public, via campaigns misrepresenting the benefits. It is likely that simple measures such as washing hands helps prevent the transmission of the virus.
Additional Note: This article focuses on the mass vaccination strategy employed by health authorities. The studies measure results over a population to see if there are benefits when comparing vaccinated groups to non vaccinated groups. If a particular years flu vaccine is an exact match with the flu going round, you may well gain immunity. Based on the Cochrane Reviews, I don’t believe this happens very often. During the swine flu scare, there was a second vaccine given to people. This would likely be effective against swine flu, because it was created specifically for this exact strain.
Daniel King MSc