Available in just about every drug store, flu vaccines seem like cheap, welcome silver bullets against the flu's fever, headaches, chills and nausea. However, relatively few people understand the ins-and-outs of flu vaccines: Which portions of the population need them, how they are made, what ingredients they contain and what risks are associated with them? "People need to be educated," says Dr. Lydia Wheaton, a naturopathic physician with NOLA Natural Health. "It's the doctor's role to fully explain the risks and benefits of the vaccine, and (the patient) should utilize this education to make a decision in their best interests."
Last year, the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic created a renewed sense of urgency regarding flu shots. "We saw a lot of illness and hospitalization of people with that particular virus. This year we're predicting that H1N1 will still be circulating," says Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, medical director of infection control and employee health for Ochsner Medical Center. "H1N1 is a type of seasonal flu. It's a strain of type A that previously wasn't covered by vaccines." This year's flu shot protects against several strains of swine flu (type A H1N1 and H3N2 and type B), says Dr. Lisa A. Casey, a family medicine physician with East Jefferson General Hospital.
Although younger patients, pregnant women and asthma patients were hit hardest by last year's wave of H1N1, Baumgarten and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise everyone over the age of 6 months to get inoculated. "This year we have no restrictions or shortages, so everybody should be getting the flu vaccine. The more people that we can get vaccinated, the better off our whole community will be in preventing flu from causing harm to anybody," Baumgarten says.
Casey encourages people with certain health risks to get a flu shot. "It's especially important that people suffering from chronic illnesses (such as heart, lung and kidney disorders), the elderly, pregnant women, health care workers and infants receive the vaccine," she says.
New vaccines are developed each year because strains of flu change from season to season. "Experts in the field attempt to find viruses circulating in other areas of the world and then figure out what strains they think will have the potential to spread throughout our community," Baumgarten says. "They pick the strains they think they'll be able to prevent, and then those strains are used to develop the vaccine."
Vaccines are usually composed of three strains, which change from season to season and are chosen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC. Though many different manufacturers produce vaccines, all vaccines contain the same three virus strains, Baumgarten says. Since the viruses are incubated in chicken eggs while the flu vaccine is in development, people allergic to eggs should not receive it.
Flu vaccines can be administered via injection or nasal spray. Injections consist of inactivated influenza. "In other words, the virus isn't there anymore," Casey says.
"Any reaction to the injection itself is mild in comparison to contracting the actual disease. There may be a little bit of soreness by the vaccine site, accompanied by redness or swelling. However, that's a normal reaction to the process of getting an injection," Baumgarten says.
Needle-phobes may prefer to receive the flu vaccine in nasal spray form, which is made of weakened virus. "The virus is manipulated so it can't actually replicate in human nasal passages," Baumgarten says. The disadvantage to this painless method of administration is that the spray can cause flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and headaches. However, symptoms should be gone within two days, Casey says. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, infants and people under age 2 or older than 79 cannot receive the nasal spray.
The safety and necessity of flu vaccines has come under scrutiny by groups like NaturalNews.com, after Australia banned the 2010 flu vaccine because it caused convulsions, vomiting and fever in children.
"Not all vaccines are created equal, but there is enough literature to question the ingredients," Wheaton says. "The (flu) vaccine may contain mercury, a known neurotoxin." Preservatives are standard additions to all vaccines, and thimerosal, a mercury derivative, functions as a preservative in multi-dose vials of the flu vaccine. Thimerosal is 49.6 percent mercury by weight, according to the FDA's website.
However, Baumgarten says thimerosal has never been proved to cause harm. "There are only trace amounts of thimerosal (in the vials), and vaccines in individual syringes do not contain it. The CDC has not yet found problems with that small amount of preservative." Patients can request thimerosal-free vaccines.
While the safety of vaccines has been a hot topic of debate for decades, there's also a question of whether flu vaccines are necessary in the first place. Rather than looking to a flu shot for protection from the virus, Wheaton recommends supporting a strong immune system through a proper diet, vitamins and eight hours of sleep every night.
"(Patients) can cure themselves that way," she says. "You're more vulnerable to the flu if you're not serving your body well."
She adds that getting sick, while unpleasant, is not without its benefits. "It's better to have exposure (to the flu virus). It's exercise for the immune system," Wheaton says. "Illness can be a teacher. Besides, there are so many different flu viruses that you can't get vaccinated for all of them."