Dec. 4 to Dec. 10 is "National Influenza Vaccination Week" and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is pushing hard for children and adults to get immunized against the flu. Colorful advertisements warn us to get our flu shots from the walls of our doctor's offices, pharmacies and grocery stores. According to the CDC, getting the flu shot is a matter of life and death. Flu shots, we are told, save lives.
At the same time, government officials have been lamenting that influenza vaccination rates are concerningly low in the U.S. and seem to be falling. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans currently heed the government's call to get their annual flu shot.
Part of the reluctance seems to stem from questions about efficacy, raised by data coming directly from the CDC. Why get a flu shot if the flu shot does not work?
In February the CDC revealed that the 2014-2015 influenza vaccine had an efficacy rate of only 19 percent. If that was not bad enough, in June the CDC's committee that advises on immunization practices announced that nasal spray flu vaccines should not be used in the 2016-2017 flu season because, in the CDC's own words, "no protective benefit could be measured" from taking them.
While this disappointing news may have come as a surprise to parents who had been told by their doctors that the nasal spray vaccines were safe and effective, it was not a surprise to health safety advocates and environmentalists who have raised scientifically based efficacy concerns for nearly as long as the government has been promoting flu vaccines.
Indeed, numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that the flu vaccine is not effective either at reducing the flu or reducing flu-related deaths.
- When a team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health compared flu vaccine rates with influenza-related illness over a 19-year period, from 1980 to 1999, they found that deaths from the flu increased as vaccination rates increased. "In conclusion, the increase in elderly influenza vaccination coverage in the U.S. after 1980 was not accompanied by a decline in influenza-related mortality," the researchers concluded.
- A study, led by a researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, found that increasing vaccination coverage did not correlate with declining mortality and the decline in influenza-related mortality could not be attributed to the flu vaccine but was rather the result of naturally acquired immunity. Observational studies crediting the flu vaccine with contributing to decreased deaths from the flu, "substantially overestimate vaccination benefit," these researchers concluded.
- A study published in the American Journal of Perinatology of vaccine effectiveness in pregnant women in Northern California across five flu seasons found that women who received flu vaccines during pregnancy had the same risk for influenza-like illness as unvaccinated women, and infants born to women who received flu vaccines also had the same risks for influenza or pneumonia as infants born to unvaccinated women. In other words, vaccine status made no difference to whether or not pregnant women or their offspring got the flu.
- A study published in Pediatrics International of Japanese children ages 6 months to 2 years who were vaccinated against the flu found that the influenza vaccine did not reduce the rate of influenza A infections in children under two.
The Cochrane Collaboration is a non-profit independent network of researchers, professionals, patients and people interested in health, based in the United Kingdom. The Cochrane Collaboration's exhaustive reviews of existing medical literature are considered the gold standard in unbiased scientific research. In 2010, when the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed the published literature on the efficacy of influenza vaccination in preventing the flu in healthy adults, researchers noted that industry-sponsored studies were much more likely to report conclusions favorable to influenza vaccines than studies funded from public sources and that, "reliable evidence on influenza vaccine is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions."
A Cochrane review of the use of the flu vaccine in healthy adults found that influenza vaccination "shows no appreciable effect on working days lost or hospitalization."
The quality of the evidence in favor of the flu vaccine is so poor that Tom Jefferson, a British epidemiologist based in Rome who was then head of the Vaccine Field Group at the Cochrane Collaboration, told two journalists writing for The Atlantic that the vast majority of the studies are deeply flawed. "Rubbish is not a scientific term," Jefferson said in that 2009 interview, "but I think it's the term that applies."
William Redwood, MD, an emergency room doctor based in Atlanta, Georgia, who has been practicing medicine for 26 years, does not think it is in the best interests of public health for the CDC to push the influenza vaccine, given the preponderance of government data that calls its efficacy into question.
"Read the Cochrane review. The studies show there is very little value in the flu vaccine," Redwood said. "More physicians are asking questions about it because the current recommendation just doesn't make sense."
CDC data suggest flu shots may take more lives than they save
Not only are there serious questions about the efficacy of the flu vaccine, there is evidence to suggest that getting the vaccine every year may cause damage to the immune system.
In a peer-reviewed study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in March 2016, a team of Canadian researchers found that people who were vaccinated against the flu three years in a row were actually at higher risk of being infected with the flu.
Also troubling is the number of adverse reactions reported to the CDC after flu vaccination. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, known as VAERS, allows doctors and individual patients to report poor health outcomes following vaccination. CDC uses VAERS to track, analyze and make vaccine safety information available to the public. Though it is estimated that the majority of adverse reactions—even serious ones—are not reported to VAERS, scientists consider it a useful tool for detecting signals about possible adverse reactions to certain vaccines. About 13 percent of the some 30,000 post-vaccine events reported to VAERS are considered serious, associated with disability, hospitalization, life threatening illness or death, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Data culled from VAERS by Stephanie Seneff, PhD, a senior research scientist at MIT, reveals a mortality rate following the flu vaccine that public health officials might find surprising: 560 deaths attributed to flu shots between 1990 and 2016.
But VAERS data grossly underestimates the actual number of adverse outcomes, as with any passive reporting system: "… VAERS receives reports for only a small fraction of actual adverse events. The degree of underreporting varies widely," according to the government website. A 2013 article in Neurology Clinical Practice calculated that only between 1 and 10 percent of adverse reactions are actually reported by physicians. Applying that calculus, the actual range of deaths following flu vaccination in the past 25 years may be between 5,600 and 56,000.
"Everyone admits that there is underreporting going on, because it's a passive system," said one state health department statistician who has worked in public health for seven years and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. "Many doctors don't even know about VAERS. I never get flu shots myself. Researchers that develop the flu shot admit year after year that they have very low efficacy. The benefit is not worth the risk of getting the shot."
The VAERS data also reveals a large number of reports of other injuries from seasonal flu shots. These include Guillain-Barré, a debilitating illness in which the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, as well as post-vaccination shoulder related injury, SIRVA, which can cause paralysis and chronic pain, and may necessitate surgery.
How many people actually die from the flu?
The CDC claims that in a bad flu season as many as 36,000 people will die from the flu and some 200,000 will be hospitalized. Those scary numbers motivate people to get the flu vaccine. But are they accurate?
Apparently not, according to the CDC, which admits that it has no method to accurately estimate annual flu deaths. States are not required to report deaths from influenza in people older than eighteen. In order to inflate the number of flu complications and deaths, the CDC includes influenza-like illnesses, pneumonia, and even heart problems, brain swelling, and sepsis. By lumping deaths from pneumonia (a bacterial infection) together with deaths from influenza (a viral infection), the threat from the flu—an uncomfortable but short-lived illness among otherwise healthy children and adults—can be exaggerated enough to justify calls for universal vaccination.
As it turns out, only one-third of people with "influenza-like illnesses" actually test positive for an influenza virus against which vaccines are designed to protect. This means that any estimate of flu deaths is inflated by at least two-thirds. If the CDC tabulated deaths from the flu based on death certificates, there would be very few, even among older adults.
Thimerosal in flu vaccines
One of the greatest concerns with influenza vaccines is that they contain thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. According to the CDC, 48 million of the 168 million flu vaccines available this year contain mega-doses of thimerosal. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration acting director for the Office of Vaccines Research and Review, William Egan, PhD, admitted in testimony before a Congressional committee, that thimerosal, which was grandfathered into the vaccine program in 1932, has never been safety tested.
As Paul Thomas, MD, a Dartmouth-trained medical doctor with more than 13,000 children in his practice in Portland, Oregon, points out, thimerosal has not been proven safe for administration to pregnant women, whose fetuses are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures. The material safety data sheet (MSDS) for thimerosal warns that it is mutagenic in mammals, and may cause adverse reproductive effects and birth defects in humans.
Media reports that flu vaccines contain only a "trace" or "negligible" amounts of mercury are incorrect. Federal regulations define trace amounts to mean less than 1 microgram. Typical flu shots contain 25mcg of mercury (25 times the trace amount).
Mark Hyman, MD, an international recognized practicing family physician at the Cleveland Clinic and an 11 times New York Times bestselling author, calls the presence of mercury in the flu vaccine a "dirty little secret," pointing out that mercury is a known neurotoxin that causes immune and neurological problems, including dementia and memory loss.
CDC senior scientist Dr. William Thompson, a 17 year veteran vaccine safety researcher, urges that pregnant women should avoid thimerosal laced flu shots. According to Thompson, CDC's own research proves that thimerosal causes tics, a grave neurological disorder that commonly occurs in children with autism. In fact, four studies have confirmed the association between exposure to thimerosal and the development of tics. These include Verstraten et al.2003, Andrews, 2004, Thompson et al, 2007 and Barile et al, 2012.
"I can say confidently I do think Thimerosal causes tics," Thompson said. "So I don't know why they still give it to pregnant women. Like that's the last person that I would give mercury to. Thimerosal from vaccines cause tics. Do you think a pregnant mother would want to take a vaccine that they know caused tics? Absolutely not! I would never give my wife a vaccine that I thought caused tics. I can say tics are four times more prevalent in kids with autism. There is biologic plausibility right now to say that Thimerosal causes autism-like features."
During the 2009-2010 flu season, the CDC recommended for the first time two flu shots for pregnant women to provide immunity to both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 influenza virus. Research by Goldman in 2013 compared the number of flu vaccine adverse event reports (VAERS) that cited spontaneous abortion or stillbirth following the receipt of flu vaccine during three consecutive flu seasons beginning in 2008. He documented a 40 fold (4,000 percent) increase in fetal loss reports in the 2009-2010 pandemic flu season following the recommendation that pregnant women received two flu vaccines.
Because of the order of magnitude increase in fetal-loss report rates, from 6.8 fetal-loss reports per million pregnant women vaccinated in the single-dose 2008-2009 season to a 77.8 in the two-dose 2009-2010 season, the investigator called for further long term studies to assess adverse outcomes in the surviving children. The CDC never performed these follow-up studies.
When children or adults are injured by vaccines, they are entitled to monetary compensation. A special federal vaccine court adjudicates "no fault" settlements which are funded by a surcharge on every vaccine administered in the United States. Though originally established to help Americans harmed by vaccines, an Associated Press investigation into vaccine injury compensation found that the government often fights legitimate vaccine injury claims and stalls proceedings for years, doing the opposite of what lawmakers intended when the court was founded in 1986.
To date the vaccine injury compensation program has paid $3.5 billion to Americans injured by vaccines.
In 2015, the court paid out $114 million more for vaccine injuries and deaths than it ever has before. For comparison, in 2014 it paid $22.8 million. Payouts in 2015 represented a 400 percent increase.
The largest increase was for flu shots. In 2014, the vaccine court paid $4.9 million for adverse flu shot reactions. That sum grew to $61 million last year, a whopping increase of 1,000 percent, as detailed by this article in the Mom Street Journal, which spent 10 months analyzing the government's latest report.
Finally, a new study published Nov. 11 in Science suggests that contracting the flu as a child may convey lifetime health benefits. That publication by UCLA and Arizona scientists funded by the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the David Packard Foundation and others found that individuals who contracted the flu during childhood had lifetime immunities to entire families of flu viruses. The investigators report strong evidence that childhood influenza infection "provides profound, lifelong protection against severe infection and death from the virus." They also acknowledge that their findings might "complicate universal vaccination approaches" and question whether universal vaccination policies might impair natural long-term protection "if received before an individual's first natural influenza A virus infection." Clearly, much more research is needed to answer these critical questions.
Drive past the Chicago skyline any night this week and you will see a brightly illuminated message in blue and white lights on the side of Blue Cross Blue Shield downtown skyscraper. GET A FLU SHOT.
Blue Cross Blue Shield building in Chicago reads, "Get a Flu Shot."
But is vaccination against the flu really in the best interests of America's health? The government data is readily available—hidden in plain sight—to anyone interested. Read it for yourself and decide.
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