My patients often ask me what I recommend regarding flu prevention at this time of the year. Influenza, or flu, viruses are changing all the time. Producing a vaccine to prevent a given flu strain is based on evaluating previous years' flu strains and making an educated guess about which strains are going to dominate in the upcoming flu season. So why don't we make the flu vaccine at the beginning of the flu season, once we know the strains? The reason: It takes many weeks to make the flu vaccine. If we were to wait until we knew the strain, it would take too long to produce enough vaccine to meet the demand.
The flu shot contains three influenza viruses which are representative of the influenza vaccine strains predicted to dominate that year. When the "match" between vaccine and circulating strains is close, the vaccine prevents the flu in about 70%-90% of healthy persons younger than age 65 years. Unfortunately, additional flu strains inevitably arise throughout the season, to which the flu shot offers no protection. For the 2012-13 flu season, the vaccine effectiveness rate was 56% across all age groups.
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. More mild reactions, such as fatigue, soreness at injection site, or slight fever are common after receiving the shot.
In addition, flu shots that come from multi-dose vials contain the preservative Thimerisol, 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 Thimerisol 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, when packaged as single doses or when administered as a nasal spray. I do not recommend that any Thimerisol-containing vaccines be administered to my patients, especially children.
Of particular concern this year is the H1N1 virus, which is highly contagious and easily spread from person to person via large respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes in close proximity to an uninfected person. For this reason, it is best to stay at home if you are sick, rather than risking spreading the virus to others. Common H1N1 symptoms include high fever with alternating sweats and chills, persistent cough, lymph node swelling, sore throat, severe nasal and chest congestion, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, digestive upset and severe abdominal pain. Rapid onset is a sign that the sufferer has something more serious than a cold. Most people generally recover from flu in 1-2 weeks.
The best flu protection for your family lies with prevention. Each flu season an estimated 5-20% of US residents get symptoms of the flu. This means that a large number of individuals are exposed to the virus but do not get an active infection. However, their immune system is creating a memory of the exposure. This allows their immune system to produce antibodies to that strain of virus, allowing lifelong immunity.
By keeping yourself healthy, and not receiving a vaccine, you are able to allow your immune system to be exposed to new strains of viruses each year, providing lasting protection. 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 your immune system is healthy, even a bout of the flu is something you can pull through quickly without complications.
In addition, we do have several preventative strategies available at 2bwell including:
Mucococcinum: A homeopathic preparation containing tiny 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 may be used both preventatively and acutely.
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.
Vitamin D: A healthy immune system requires adequate vitamin D levels. While a vaccination can be used stimulate virus-killing CD8 T cells, research shows that Vitamin D also does this. People with more CD8 T cells are less susceptible to infection or experience only mild flu symptoms. Darker skinned individuals require more direct sunlight on the skin, and Pacific NW residents tend to become deficient during our relatively dark winters. This is one vitamin supplement that may be detrimental in large amounts. Consider getting your Vitamin D levels tested to see if supplementation is needed.
Probiotics: The resident bacterial in your gut provide for a healthy intestinal environment that resists invasion by bacteria and viruses. It is important to include either a high-quality probiotic supplement or to eat foods daily that contain live flora. Such foods include plain yogurt, miso, kombucha, tempeh, and sauerkraut. In addition, a diet high in fiber and fresh vegetables remains important, as food for the healthy bacteria.
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.
For more information about CDC flu vaccine recommendations, see http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/index.htm.
Julie Brush, ND