The Flu Shot: How Dangerous, How Effective, Should You Get It?
“I’d NEVER get the flu shot – it’s got mercury in it.”
That was my coworker’s reaction after I told her that I had just gotten my flu shot (which I had told her as a passing “I should say something to make conversation” statement.)
This definitely was not the response I was expecting, and it suddenly invoked strong feelings within me:
- Fear. Had I just willingly allowed someone to inject mercury into my veins?
- Anger. Why is she trying to scare me with her sensationalist claims again?
- Quite a lot of confusion. So what is this flu shot all about anyway – does it even work?
Let’s just say that those feeling did not lead to the most productive of conversations. However, what it did leave me was a feeling that I had to get to the bottom of this.
Are flu shots dangerous or am I just defending my sense of pride for having gone and gotten a flu shot without examining all the facts? What does the flu shot protect against – did I just waste all that time for something that won’t even protect me from the flu? And should I get the flu shot in the future?
Are Flu Shots Dangerous?
There are no proven significant side-effects from flu vaccines. The most common side effects from the flu shot are aches and fatigue.
However, what we hear on the news is about scary rare illnesses that have been linked to the flu shot.
For example, it is often mentioned that Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) is caused by flu shots. This is an illness that can last a few weeks but rarely causes death or permanent damage, and you can get this disease regardless of whether you get vaccinated or not.
So should I be scared of getting GBS after my flu shot?
A 2013 study on GBS found that there is a 1 in a million chance of developing the syndrome after receiving the flu vaccine (and developing the illness rarely led to anything permanent.)
Does that mean the flu shot has no scary side effects?
Unfortunately, the exact risk of serious side effects from the flu shot may never be known. Most of the studies for flu vaccinations have been funded by the drug companies, which often leads to the “file drawer” effect (whereby studies showing a result contrary to the drug company’s goals are placed into a dark and never-to-be-opened file drawer.) So there is a good chance that even the side effects we currently know about are underestimated.
There’s also the possibility that each year’s new vaccination (e.g., a new “quadrivalent” vaccine is being introduced in the U.S. this year) could have certain side effects that were not present in past vaccines.
But that’s just the side effects traceable to the flu vaccine. What about the ingredients in the vaccine that could be harmful to us?
The Ingredients in Flu Vaccines Aren’t That Scary
I’m careful about what I eat because I don’t want to put toxins into my body. It therefore makes sense to not inject random chemicals into my body. However, while there are some suspect chemicals in the flu shot, they are present in very small amounts (especially when compared to how much you are constantly exposed to those chemicals in daily life.)
For example, mercury and formaldehyde could both be present in your flu shot. Sounds nasty, right?
The multi-dose shot contains thimerosal (a preservative that can break down into mercury compounds). The single-dose shots and the nasal sprays do not contain thimerosal.
Just the word “mercury” sends alerts up to my brain, but thimerosal is really completely different from the mercury that we are typically afraid of. In our body, thimerosal can break down into ethylmercury, which exits the body pretty quickly and hasn’t been found to cause any significant harm to us (e.g., a 2004 study found no link between thimerosal and autism in children.)
But if you want to be extra cautious, then go for the single-dose or the nasal spray.
Very small amounts of formaldehyde are used in most brands of flu vaccines to inactivate the virus. In each dose, there’s around 5 µg to 25 µg of formaldehyde. Compare that amount to 8600 µg to 13200 µg of formaldehyde present in a pear naturally!
(If you want to know more about what goes into the flu vaccine, this website has all the details: http://www.vaccinesafety.edu/com ponents-Influenza.htm.)
But what about for kids? The CDC also recommends that kids (everyone over six months of age) get vaccinated.
The Verdict is Unclear for Children
A 2012 Cochrane report had some interesting conclusions about the flu vaccines for children.
They found that flu vaccines for children under two years of age “are not significantly more efficacious than placebo.” However, they also concluded that the vaccines did seem to work for children over two years of age.
Another important conclusion that they drew was that: “It was not possible to analyse the safety of vaccines from the studies due to the lack of standardisation in the information given, but very little information was found on the safety of inactivated vaccines, the most commonly used vaccine in young children.”
One argument based on these conclusions is that kids under two years of age shouldn’t be getting the vaccination when it doesn’t protect them and when we don’t even know the side effects of the vaccination.
It’s a tough choice either way when you’re a parent (you want to protect your child but not expose them to unnecessary risk.) Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer here.
However, it’s not just for kids that the vaccine isn’t effective – it’s also not that effective for adults either!
The Flu Vaccination is Not Very Effective
Every year I’ve gotten the flu vaccine, I’ve expected it to be a magic pill for preventing the flu. I go through the inconvenience of the shot, and viola, I avoid the flu for that year. Sadly, it seems that very few people get any benefit from the flu vaccine.
According to a report by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, “influenza vaccine protection is markedly lower than for most routinely recommended vaccines and is suboptimal.”
To quantify the flu vaccine’s ineffectiveness, Tom Jefferson from the Cochrane Vaccines Field stated that: “you need to vaccinate between 33 and 99 people to prevent one case of flu, depending on the match between the vaccine and the circulating strains of the virus.”
But they claim that the flu shot is over 50% effective at preventing the flu!
What that 50% means is that if 1% of people who got vaccinated still got the flu but 2% of people who didn’t get vaccinated got the flu, there is a 50% reduction in relative risk, but the absolute risk reduction is just 1%.
I know, it’s really confusing even for me with multiple physics degrees – this quick example might help.
If there are only 100 people in the world and none of them got vaccinated, then around two of them would get the flu each year (this is the real statistics for getting the flu on a basic level.) However, if we vaccinate all 100 people in the world, then only one of them would now get the flu each year. So by vaccinating all 100 people, we saved one1 person from getting the flu (1% of all people in the world.) But half (or 50%) of the people that would have gotten the flu didn’t get the flu due to the vaccine.
So, after all that, the bottom line is simply that if you do get the vaccination, you can still get the flu so don’t hope for too much. However, the vaccine does work (there is a reduction in the number of people getting the flu!)
Should You Get the Flu Shot?
Last year I got the flu shot because it was offered in my office – it took a few minutes out of my day to walk up the stairs and receive a shot (no waiting time, no cost to me, and I assumed it would be effective at lowering my chances of getting the flu.)
This year, I didn’t, partly because I realized the flu shot isn’t all that effective. But realistically, there are several other reasons for my decision. For instance, I don’t work in that office any more, and so I would have to go somewhere to get it. I’d also have to see if it’s covered by my new, cheaper health insurance, and I’d have to take time to plan where to go and when to go.
Having lived sickness-free for a while now, I am also less fearful of getting the flu or being as debilitated by it. I know that if I feel any symptoms, I will immediately get more sleep, cut down on my exercise, and eat more nutrient-dense foods.
So, I can’t give you a definitive answer as to whether or not you should get the flu shot, but what I can tell you is that whether or not you get the flu shot, you should still take some preventative measures to keep yourself healthy and sickness-free during the cold and flu season. This article has some ideas for how to do that.
Are you going to get the flu shot?
So, what did you decide to do this year? Flu shot or no?
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