A Harvard study suggests that taking the flu shot significantly reduces all-cause mortality. Are they telling us the whole story? 

The social pressure to receive a flu shot affects many of us every year. It gets worse if we are over 65, work in healthcare, or have certain chronic illnesses. One argument in favor of the flu vaccine is a 2015 article from Harvard Medical School, promoting a significantly lower risk of all-cause mortality with flu shots.

But are the side effects that come along with it worthwhile? Are they really the best way to live longer, healthier lives? Let’s look beyond the headlines to research, historical data, and alternatives. 

How Could The Flu Shot Help Us Live Longer?

First, the Harvard blog claims that the flu shot typically reduces your risk of developing the infection by 50 to 60 percent. Then, it references an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) stating that the flu shot reduces all-cause mortality by 48 percent in people aged over 65. One reason behind this is that the vaccine lowers the risk of secondary bacterial pneumonia. This complication is ultimately responsible for many hospitalizations and deaths. 

The second belief is that infections such as influenza cause inflammation. Your immune system become triggered when it goes into action. The immune system fights infections and cleans up tissue damage; a more serious infection means more inflammation. High levels of inflammation also increase your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and serious chronic illnesses.

A meta-analysis of several studies demonstrated a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who took the flu shot. However, according to the study, only people with a previous history of heart attack or stroke had a 55 percent lower risk of it happening again.

Those with no prior history had a mere 6 percent risk reduction. It was suggested that influenza-induced inflammation raised the risk of unstable blood clots forming over arterial plaques. These can break off, get caught in smaller blood vessels, and trigger a heart attack or stroke. 

Does Correlation Equal Causation?

“Correlation does not equal causation” is a favorite saying among vaccine supporters used to dismiss vaccine injuries. However, it may be more than a cliche when it comes to the claim that flu vaccines reduce mortality. A study involving all Californian Kaiser Permanente members over 65 found that flu shot coverage peaked in people with an annual risk of death between three and 7.4 percent.

On the other hand, only one-third of people with an over 50 percent chance of death received the flu vaccine. Therefore, more seriously ill members could be less likely to get vaccinated as they “give up” on prevention. This results in an unintentional skewing of the results in favor of the shot. It was estimated that flu shots prevented 25 deaths per 100,000 vaccinated Kaiser Permanente members. In terms of relative risk, the flu vaccine reduced all-cause mortality by 4.6 percent. 

A second investigation of death rates among people over 65 also showed no benefit of the flu shot. Increasing vaccination rates were not linked with falling mortality rates, partly because only one-tenth of deaths during winter were caused by influenza.

The study’s authors attribute decreasing flu-related deaths since 1968 to increasing immunity to the H3N2 virus strains. Only 15-20 percent of Americans over 65 received the flu shot before 1980, while 65 percent took it in 2001. Despite increased coverage, influenza-related deaths seemed to rise. 

Clinical Trial Data

A review of trial data, including searches through the Cochrane Central Register, MEDLINE, and Embase, found poor results for the flu vaccine too. The absolute risk reduction in healthy (no diagnosed conditions) adults receiving the flu shot fell from 2.3 to 0.9 percent. In relative terms, this is a roughly 60 percent risk reduction. But, it took 71 people to receive the inactivated flu shot to prevent one case. The live aerosol vaccine had to be administered to 46 people for every case prevented. 

Another review evaluating risk difference had similar results. If the vaccine matched a high-circulation viral strain, one percent of vaccinated people versus four percent of unvaccinated people developed influenza. For poor vaccine matches, these figures were one and two percent respectively. The flu shot did not reduce hospital admissions or complications. However, inactivated vaccines caused one case of Guillain-Barre Syndrome per million doses.  

Flu Shot Side Effects Versus Benefits

There is also the matter of flu shot side effects, including a higher rate of other respiratory infections. A trial on 115 children taking a three-strain flu vaccine found a 4.4 times greater risk of other respiratory infections, all virologically confirmed. These included the rhinovirus (common cold) and the pandemic H1N1 virus (swine flu).

In the Department of Defense personnel, the flu shot appeared to interfere with immunity to coronaviruses and human metapneumoviruses. This indicates increased susceptibility to other non-influenza respiratory infections, while the flu vaccine generally fails to protect against the intended strains due to virus mutation.  

Contrary to the earlier study suggesting a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, another found worsening of measurements relevant to cardiovascular events after the flu shot. When 28 people with diabetes received an influenza A vaccine, their levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) almost tripled! Heart rate variability (HRV), an indicator of rhythm regulation, worsened in association with higher inflammation.

There was also greater platelet activation, putting volunteers at more risk of inappropriate blood clots. As diabetics with an average age of 62, these participants were in one of the main “target audiences” for the flu shot. However, diabetes also increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to cardiovascular events. 

The Flu Shot And Inflammation

Flu shot side effects don’t stop at our biggest killer, cardiovascular disease. Instead, they extend to the most widespread disability: depression. When 41 university students signed up for the annual flu vaccine, they were asked to record their mood, sleep, physical symptoms, and feelings of social disconnection for one week before and after the shot. Their levels of IL-6, a commonly tested inflammatory marker, were associated with more severe changes in their mental health.

While fatigue did not increase, depressed mood and cognitive impairment did. Not all participants recorded these effects. The average depressed mood scores were significantly higher among those with raised IL-6 (33 volunteers). 

Another downside to the flu vaccine is that it may interact with other pharmaceutical drugs such as statins. A case study of a 53-year-old surgeon describes the development of acute kidney failure 12 days after receiving an inactivated flu shot. He had no symptoms of urinary tract infection or exposure to other substances with kidney toxicity.

However, the authors found three other published cases of acute kidney failure in statin users who took the flu shot. Although he recovered after two weeks of corticosteroid treatment, this was a serious, potentially life-threatening situation. Muscular inflammation is a known side effect of flu vaccines, and in severe cases, it can cause rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown). Statins can lead to this problem too, so the two together may have an additive effect on each other. 

Holistic Ways To Fight The Flu

The flu shot isn’t the only way to prevent influenza or its complications, such as bacterial pneumonia. A trial involving over 300 children found that 1200IU per day of vitamin D3 reduced the risk of influenza A by 42 percent. Children with asthma who took vitamin D had an 83 percent lower risk of asthma attacks as a consequence of the flu.

In an examination of NHANES data, vitamin D levels of under 30ng/mL were linked with a 56 percent higher risk of pneumonia, compared to levels over 30ng/mL. Unfortunately, over ninety percent of African, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, and almost three-quarters of white Americans, have vitamin D levels under 30ng/mL. That’s why many healthcare professionals recommend supplementation with vitamin D3 if you are deficient. 

Silver Nanoparticles

Additionally, lab research has found that silver nanoparticles can inactivate influenza A viruses, significantly reducing their ability to infect cells. Another study demonstrated a dramatic effect of silver nanoparticles against bacterial species commonly involved in pneumonia. When synthesized with Eucalyptus citriodora extract, they not only directly kill the bacteria, but also impaired biofilm formation, attachment to tissues, and invasion of human lung cells.

Biofilms make bacterial infections more dangerous by shielding them against antimicrobials and the immune system. Fortunately, silver nanoparticles may almost eliminate those formed by two more infectious bacteria involved in pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Silver nanoparticles work by disrupting the energy production and DNA function of bacteria and viruses.

Herbal Remedies

Some herbal remedies, including elderberry, may be effective too. When 60 patients who had developed the flu within the past 48 hours took elderberry syrup, they experienced symptomatic relief four days earlier than the placebo group.

Another herb, echinacea, has broad-spectrum immunomodulating and antiviral effects. A study on one formulation showed a significant reduction in cold episodes when using echinacea Unlike the common medication oseltamivir (Tamiflu), drug resistance did not develop. 

Common Sense

Common sense still applies when preventing influenza from spreading to more vulnerable people. If you do have any symptoms of infection, it’s advisable to stay home until you recover. Correct hand hygiene is also essential. This involves washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, then completely rinsing and drying them. The benefits of hand hygiene are even stronger when paired with a face mask if you’re sick. 

Much of the research in support of the flu shot as a way to improve our overall health and longevity relies on correlations, or only finds benefit in certain groups. In fact, its adverse effects can negatively impact longevity and quality of life. In light of potentially dangerous flu shot side effects, it’s certainly good news that natural alternatives do exist. 

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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