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The Question of Flu Shots

My patients often ask me what I recommend regarding flu shots at this time of the year.  While it is easy to find information on the necessity of having the flu shot, it is not as easy to find information as to why you may choose not to, or if there are other preventative options.  I encourage my patients to learn pros and cons of flu shots, in order to make a well-informed decision.

This year, the decision is more complicated with the issue of the HINI flu shot, which is recommended in addition to the seasonal flu shot.  CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has recommended that certain groups of the population receive the 2009 H1N1 vaccine first.  These target groups include pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old, and people ages of 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems. 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people get seasonal flu shots in October or November.  The seasonal flu shot does not cover the H1N1 strain of influenza.  It is not uncommon for the demand to exceed the need for flu shots.  With that in mind, the CDC states that priority should be given to people at high risk for complications from the flu, including:

•    Children aged 6 months to 19 years
•    Pregnant women
•    People 50 years of age and older
•    People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
•    People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
•    People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
•    Health care workers
•    Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu
•    Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)

(For more information go to http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm, or http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/)

The flu shot contains three influenza viruses which are representative of the influenza vaccine strains recommended for that year.  When the "match" between vaccine and circulating strains is close, the vaccine prevents influenza in about 70%-90% of healthy persons younger than age 65 years. When the "match" is not as close, the rate of prevention may be far less.  The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. The risk of a flu shot causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small. However, a vaccine, like any medicine, may rarely cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions.  Due to the presence of egg protein in the vaccines, people with egg allergies should not have the seasonal or H1N1 flu shots.

Unfortunately, additional flu strains inevitably arise throughout the season, to which the flu shot offers no protection.  In addition, flu shots contain the preservative Thimerosol, which contains ethylmercury, a known neurotoxin. Harm caused by the low doses of Thimerosal in vaccines appears to be limited to minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site.  However, there is some question about the safety of cumulative levels of Thimerosol in young children who have received multiple small doses through childhood vaccinations.  In July 1999 the Public Health Service (PHS) agencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and vaccine manufacturers agreed that Thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines as a precautionary measure.

Today, all routinely recommended licensed pediatric vaccines that are currently being manufactured for the U.S. market, with the exception of influenza vaccine, contain no Thimerosal or only trace amounts. Thimerosal preservative-free influenza vaccines are available, but in limited quantities.   For the 2009-2010 season, the CDC reports that 50 million doses of Thimerosol-free seasonal flu vaccines will be available.  For the H1N1 vaccines, some maufacturers will be manufacturing single dose vials which will be Thimerosol-free.  The H1N1 intranasal vaccine will not contain Thimerosol.  I do not recommend that any Thimerosol-containing vaccines be administered to my patients, especially children.

The best flu protection for your family lies with prevention.  Now is the time to start treating yourself well, to keep your immune system strong and able to ward off the viruses that will be circulating.  Eating healthy meals, getting adequate sleep, spending time outdoors and exercising regularly are all important components of keeping our immune systems strong.  When our immune systems are healthy, even a bout of the flu is something we pull through quickly without complications.

In addition, we do have several preventative strategies available at 2bwell including:

Mucococcinum: A homeopathic preparation containing minute amounts of various strains of the worst flu epidemics of the 20th century.  It is specifically formulated to help boost immune function and stimulate the body's own defenses to combat and prevent the flu and potent viruses.  It is indicated for all types of flu, colds and respiratory ailments.  It may be used both preventatively and acutely. 

Vitamin D: The "sunshine vitamin" is often deficient in people living in the Pacific Northwest.  An essential nutrient produced in abundance by skin exposed to the sun's rays, it is now recognized as a key player throughout the body, including the immune system. Research is now exploring the possibility that the reason for seasonal illnesses may be due to lack of sunlight in the winter months.  Improving your vitamin D status through skin exposure to sunlight or supplementation may offer viral protection, in addition to a myriad of other benefits.

Immune-stimulating herbal tincture:  A botanical preparation of Echinacea, Astragalus and Glycyrrhiza, this combination has been proven effective in stimulating immune cells that fight bacterial and viral invaders.  It is ideal at the beginning of any ailment to stimulate the immune system.  Please see my recently published article if you would like to read more at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16807880, and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17661330

I encourage you to visit me at 2bwell to discuss preventative strategies for fall and winter.  We will develop a specific plan for you or your child to make this season a happy and healthy one!  In addition, acute visits and phone consults are available, should you or a family member need help pulling through an illness quickly and without complication.

Remember, the best investment you can make is in your health!