I have lots to think about from the conference I attended this past weekend (Relevant), with lots of effects on my blog... but so far I don't know what to do, so you'll get a rather underwhelming post about vitamin D and flu prevention.
Ok, so the seasonal flu is about to hit. We have 3 options:
1. Do nothing, and just hope for the best-- either to tough it out, or to just hope it misses us somehow.
2. Try to prevent it via the flu vaccine (which every bulletin board seems to recommend)
3. Try to prevent it via natural methods.
I think we'd all agree that the flu is bad, even though it usually isn't a big deal. It's no fun, and in vulnerable individuals (especially the elderly), it can lead to other more serious diseases like pneumonia. There is also a link between autism (and other mental diseases) and children born to moms who had the flu at certain times in pregnancy (when the baby's brain was developing). And even if it's no big deal for you to get the flu, my friends Sarah & Kira have pointed out to me that it could be "a big deal" if you pass it on to more vulnerable people. This info seems to suggest that Option 1 isn't really a good one.
But is it better to pursue Option 2 or Option 3? To know we need to ask two more questions: Is the flu vaccine effective at actually preventing the flu? and Are flu vaccines safe? Those could each be a blog post in and of themselves. Briefly, let me try to handle these:
Is the flu vaccine effective at actually preventing the flu?
Advocates of the vaccine say that it lowers deaths among the elderly by as much as 50%, but a recent study found that this reduction is actually mostly do to other factors (socioeconomic especially).
"The study found that people who were healthy and conscientious about staying well were the most likely to get an annual flu shot. Those who are frail may have trouble bathing or dressing on their own and are less likely to get to their doctor’s office or a clinic to receive the vaccine. They are also more likely to be closer to death." (NY Times article from Sept 2008)Also, there doesn't seem to be actual lowering of pneumonia occurrence in older people who have the flu shot (which is the #1 cause of "flu" deaths). For little kids, there is a significant reduction in confirmed flu (kids who are taken to the doctor and get a flu test)...but not much reduction in "flu-like symptoms" (parent didn't necessarily take them to the doctor to get a confirmed test). Whether those were 'systemic reactions' (non-contagious reactions to the vaccine- still miserable) or an actual full-blown flu from a strain not in the vaccine (contagious AND miserable) was not tested in the study. Remember just how fast flu viruses mutate:
A vaccine formulated for one year may be ineffective in the following year, since the influenza virus evolves rapidly, and new strains quickly replace the older ones. (wikipedia)Another study looked at whether the flu shot made a difference in child hospitalization due to the flu and flu-caused secondary infections, and found that it didn't. I couldn't find good studies that compared flu incidences between matched vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. If you know of one, please put it in the comments!
Are flu vaccines safe?
Here's the big question... As far as pregnant women go, the link between flu and autism in their unborn babies actually comes from the baby's exposure to the flu ANTIBODIES (the mom's immune system reaction), not the actual flu itself.
"Surprisingly, the finger of blame does not point at the virus itself. Since influenza infection is generally restricted to the mother's respiratory tract, the team speculated that what acts as the mediator is not the mother's infection per se but something in her immune response to it." (source.)This is a big warning sign, because the goal of flu vaccines is to trigger the same immune system reaction as the flu itself! So...flu vaccine a really really BAD idea for pregnant moms... and so is the flu.
These researchers are concerned about the effects of flu vaccines on babies:
" It was surprising to find only one study of inactivated vaccine in children under two years, given recent recommendations to vaccinate healthy children from six months old in the USA and Canada. If immunisation in children is to be recommended as public-health policy, large-scale studies assessing important outcomes and directly comparing vaccine types are urgently required."Also, most flu shots contain mercury (the single-use kind which are more expensive, don't), formaldehyde, aluminum, triton x-100 (a detergent), phenol, ethelyne glycol (antifreeze), and various antibiotics. Those aren't exactly health foods.
To sum it up: for the elderly-- you risk getting a "systemic reaction" that feels just as awful as the flu, and could cause just as much weight loss and strain on a fragile system, from a vaccine- sure, you might not pass it on to another elderly person, but at your age you need to be concerned with your own vulnerable health, not another's. You can get a strain of the flu you weren't inoculated against despite your getting the vaccine. You also don't get any lowered chances of dying of flu-caused-pneumonia, nor dying earlier. It doesn't sound like the shot would be worth it to an older person. For pregnant women- flu antibodies are very dangerous to your developing child, whether they come after a vaccine-induced reaction or a full-blown flu. Both the flu and the shot are bad news. For infants (0-2)- lack of studies on the effect of the flu vaccine (even the "killed" or attenuated versions) on this age group is troublesome. The baby is the most vulnerable to infection (natural flu), yet his neurological system is still developing and is vulnerably super-responsive to anything that triggers an immune reaction (a shot). Mercury and other toxins are particularly harmful to these tiniest of bodies (so much higher a concentration for them). Also, studies did not show any difference between a shot & a placebo in preventing the flu in this age group. I would not/do not want my baby to get either the vaccine or the actual flu. If my child reacted to the flu shot (systemically), I'd always regret making him suffer when there was a chance he could have avoided the flu entirely. For children- the vaccine doesn't reduce the chances of flu-caused hospitalization, nor of flu-like symptoms (meaning their parent didn't get a flu test). Does a kid (or their parents) care if he feels miserable but isn't contagious? Children are quite likely exposed to more strains of the flu than anyone, so gaining partial immunity against 2 or 3 isn't really very comforting, especially when you realize that flu manufacturers have to guess ahead of time what strains will hit hardest, and that's different in every area.
That leaves adults-- the ones most able to fight off the flu on their own...and least susceptible to vaccine-damage. Ironically, this is the group least targeted for vaccination campaigns. Remember that being vaccinated against the flu, even with the best possible outcome of no reaction beyond a sore arm, only gives you partial, temporary immunity against 2-3 strains of the flu. You could still get a new or unusual strain at any time...and pass it on to others. (Immuno-suppressed people such as asthmatics and chemo patients is another topic, which I am not equipped to handle at the moment.)
I will deal with Option 3 in a following post.