We hear more and more about the flu vaccine. But is it worth the shot in the arm? Or is it a shot in the dark?
Nearly 150 million doses have been produced in hopes of keeping millions from getting sick between now and April. That's the highest number ever available.
No one wants the flu after all. Is there any adult who hasn't had the flu and doesn't know the routine that follows in its wake? Your life fades into the suffering world of high fevers, body aches and overall misery.
Ask people on the street why they're getting this year's shot. Here's a typical response: "I wanted to be pro-active so I would not get the flu this season. Last year I got sick and it wasn't fun."
State Health Commissioner Dr. Karen Remley, a Virginia pediatrician, recommends the shot as basic prevention. She's concerned about what it can cause.
"Flu is one of the leading causes of death in our country," she says. "Over 36,000 people die every year in our country and it's preventable by getting the flu shot."
The federal government finds of that 36,000, about 1,000 people die directly from the flu virus. Blame for the remaining 35,000 deaths goes to diseases like pneumonia that may follow the flu.
However there's no clear scientific connection between the flu and these more serious afflictions. That means most of the time the shot would have little impact in actually preventing death.
Barbara Loe Fisher heads of the non-governmental National Vaccine Information Center. She says the repeated references to 36,000 seems to be an attempt to scare people into getting the shot.
Fisher suggests the public is smart enough to decide independently. A free market would be better, she believes.
"If we allow vaccines to be subject to the test of the marketplace, then the public will use those vaccines they consider to be safe, effective, and necessary," Fisher says.
Flu Shot Alternatives
Fisher has a new book on the safety issues with vaccines, "Vaccines, Autism & Chronic Inflammation: The New Epidemic." Those concerns have led her to look at alternatives.
One alternative favored by a number of physicians is vitamin D.
Dr. John Cannell, Executive Director of the Vitamin D Council, suggests the reason we even have a flu season is because our vitamin D levels drop.
That takes place naturally as we get less and less sun with the approach of winter. Cannell explains that less sun means we produce less vitamin D in our skin.
"Pretty much any disease, any infectious disease, that is more common in winter is a target of vitamin D," Cannell says.
He says that's true even of some serious non-seasonal, prolonged diseases such as tuberculosis. Early in the 19th century, TB sanitariums where people would get sun were one of the few ways to recover from "consumption," as it was known.
So Cannell suggests babies get a 1,000 units a day and those two and older get 2,000 units. Many adults and some children need to take more than that. For kids, that can come as a single daily drop of liquid D.
Cannell says a recent discovery explains vitamin D's role in the flu season. The vitamin triggers your body to produce its own antibiotics against flu as well as colds.
While Remley says getting the shot is the first priority, she finds nutrition quite important. For her, the research is becoming clearer.
"We're learning every day more and more that there are a number of vitamins that we are deficient in," she says. "Vitamin D is certainly one of them because we have way too many people who spend a whole lot of time indoors."
Flu Shot and the Elderly
Older people have long been considered more vulnerable to the flu and its consequences. For 40 years, public health officials have encouraged that age group especially to have the shot.
Yet critics say the shot appears to make no difference. In 1980, flu vaccine coverage among the elderly was 15 percent. Now over four times the number of seniors get the shot - that's 65 percent.
The bottom line is that deaths should have gone down. But government mortality charts from the National Center for Health Statistics show no downward trend.
And while there may be no benefit in saving lives, there does seem to be an advantage for the workplace.
Remley comments, "One of the reasons why the CDC, or Centers for Disease Control, recommends that people over 50 get the vaccine, it causes significant loss of your ability to work, to function, when you really get the flu, you are out for a week." Of course, that can apply to younger adults as well.
Looking at an American Medical Association study, what might we find about curbing that lost productivity? The research found that 3 percent of unvaccinated adults got the flu. Of those vaccinated, only 2 percent came down with influenza.
In other words, one in every 100 shots prevents a case of the flu. If 150 million shots are given, that could mean a reduction of as much as one and half million cases of the flu.
But critics aren't so sure and worry about long-term side effects from the shot.
As listed on government Web sites, vaccine makers report problems in the blood, immune system, brain, lungs, and joints. One researcher claims that there is 10 times as much Alzheimer's Disease in older people regularly getting the shot versus those who get no or few flu shots.
And What About Kids?
The flu shot is now recommended for all children beginning from six months to 18-years old.
Mothers like Heather Maurer have read up on the flu shot and are resisting the trend. She says the vaccine could compromise her infant daughter's immune system, "in addition, I'm not interested in exposing her to the various toxins in the flu vaccine."
Fisher believes the flu shot is one more among too many already.
"In 1982, the government said all children should get 23 doses of 7 vaccines by age 6," she recalls. "Today with the addition of influenza vaccine to those recommendations, our children are being asked to get 69 doses of 16 vaccines from birth to age 18."
That's a tripling of the doses.
Fisher says we could be trading brief infections for long-term disability.
"No, they're not getting chicken pox, they're not getting measles or whooping cough, but they are becoming chronically ill -- a tripling of the numbers of children suffering with learning disabilities, ADHD, asthma, diabetes, autism, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease," she says.
Fisher spoke at a recent rally protesting New Jersey's new vaccine law. The state is forcing kids in daycare and preschool to get the flu shot.
How Much Say Should the Government Have?
That raises questions about the public's right to obey the dictates of conscience "or to pray for guidance and obey the guidance you're given," she says.
In fact, she adds that the government should not force parents to inject their children "with any kind of biological or give our child a pharmaceutical product that could injure or kill our child without our voluntary, informed consent. That's the very definition of freedom."
So what was once a simple 'yes' or 'no' about the flu shot for senior citizens is now more complicated. There are not only the medical uncertainties, but the public policy questions about the limits of government. That leaves no easy answers.
*Original broadcast November 4, 2008.