The Interesting History of Influenza

In a few months we will start hearing admonitions from doctors and public health authorities that we should get the flu vaccine to protect us from the onslaught of germs during cold and flu season. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we are now vaccinating for a disease that used to be a shrugged off as unpleasant but normal for those with an average functioning immune system?

The history of influenza and the flu vaccine is quite different from what you might think. And when you understand the facts behind the flu, you may find yourself choosing not to follow the advice of your doctor, the CDC and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The 1918-1919 Flu Pandemic

I think when we picture the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, we picture doctors and the public doing everything right- washing their hands, using the most effective drugs, etc.- and then young healthy people still dying. The reality is that doctors really didn’t know what was causing the flu pandemic and were giving advice on how to fight it based on faulty logic. Researcher Laurie Garrett notes that counsel from doctors during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic included warnings to avoid old, dusty books, German fish, Chinese people, open windows, closed windows, washed pajamas, and unwashed pajamas. Some doctors even attributed the flu pandemic to “cosmic influences”. (The Coming Plague, Laurie Garret, pg. 158.) If you look at pictures of people during the pandemic, you’ll see a lot of people wearing masks over their noses and mouths because they thought that the flu was airborne. While this is true that you can catch the flu from coughing or sneezing on you, it’s contact with infected people and not the air that spreads the disease, so the masks would be of limited help if you got coughed on or sneezed on and the touched your mouth or nose under the mask.

There truly is a lot of misinformation circulating about the flu. For example, did you know that there is compelling evidence that many of the deaths in the 1918–1919 H1N1 flu epidemic may have actually been due to lethal aspirin doses administered by well–meaning physicians? At the time, aspirin was considered an exciting new drug on the market and the US Surgeon General, US Navy and Journal of the American Medical Association all recommended high dosages of aspirin for treating the flu. The symptoms exhibited by many flu victims match with those of aspirin poisoning, though at the time doctors didn’t think aspirin poisoning existed. Some have questioned Dr. Starko’s findings, citing the high death rate in India where supposedly access to aspirin was limited. However, high death rates in India could have been due to factors such as crowding and malnutrition, which does not preclude the possibility of high death rates from aspirin poisnonging in countries where aspirin was widely available. World War I also created more opportunities for the disease to spread than might otherwise have been possible.

The 1976 H1N1 Scare

H1N1 resurfaced again in 1976 spooking health authorities. The only victim of the actual flu was an extremely motivated army private in basic training. Despite being confined to quarters for illness, he nevertheless shouldered a fifty pound pack, went out for a several mile hike in the dead of winter and subsequently collapsed and died. The post–mortem showed that the private was carrying the H1N1 strain of flu and a few other privates tested positive for the same strain. Based on this information, public health authorities assumed that a pandemic must be coming. (However, the fact that the young private’s drill sergeant performed CPR on him when he collapsed and didn’t get sick was considered completely irrelevant.) (The Coming Plague.)

Health authorities panicked and assumed that another influenza pandemic was coming. Efforts to mobilize a vaccine quickly kicked in. The vaccine was produced and the public was admonished that it was a matter of safety and health to receive the new flu vaccine.

The new vaccine was short lived though. Instances of people dying or contracting Guillain-Barre syndrome shortly after receiving the vaccine began to come to light. Though the CDC downplayed the connection between the H1N1 vaccine and Guillain-Barre syndrome, by early 1977, agency insiders had already concluded that the occurrence GBS was greater among those who had received the flu vaccine than among those who had not. By the time of Carter’s inauguration, 1,100 cases of GBS had been reported, half of whom had received the Swine flu shot. Among those 1,100 cases of GBS, fifty-eight had resulted in death. Researchers concluded that the instance of  Guillain-Barre Syndrome was ten times greater for the those who had received the Swine Flu shot, than for those who had not. (Garret 181) That’s right, the 1976 flu vaccine killed more people than the disease itself did.

4,181 cases were filed seeking payment for damages caused by the 1976 flu vaccine. The cases made their way through the legal system for a decade and a half, but by 1993, the United States government had paid out over $93 million dollars to swine flu claimants. (Garret 182)

Panic or Pandemic?

One thing to understand about current flu reports is that the numbers of deaths we get from the media and the CDC are not necessarily reliable.  A growing number of statisticians and doctors have been publicly criticizing flaws in the methods the CDC uses to calculate flu deaths.   Doctors point out that the information is taken from death certificates which are filled out by harried physicians who may not take the time to include a full and detailed report of all the factors that led to the death. This is especially problematic because flu can make underlying conditions such as heart problems worse which then results in a death. Other doctors point out that 91% of flu deaths occur in people age 65 and older who often have several health problems already, not young and healthy people. Pregnant women, let me repeat that: You have been told that you are especially at risk for flu complications, but more than 90% of all flu deaths happen to the elderly who have preexisting conditions. I had the flu when I was pregnant with my first baby (I’m told it was probably the H1N1 strain) and I recovered very quickly. I sipped herb tea, ate crackers, rested and never had to see a doctor.

The Flu Shot- Can It Really Save You?

Should you get a flu shot? Public health officials say it’s irresponsible not to. However, the flu shot does have several limitations.   One problem with getting a flu shot is that as much as public health officials try to include the strains that they predict will be the most prevalent, there is still a very real possibility that you could contract another strain. Doctors and public health officials claim that the flu shot may help reduce the severity of the flu if you do contract a strain that the vaccine doesn’t cover, but they rarely offer any proof of this. Also, it takes two weeks for the vaccine to actually take effect, so until then you are fair game for any and all flu strains, both giving and receiving. (Look for the heading “Will the flu vaccine work right away?”)

Interestingly enough, while the elderly are the ones who die from the flu most frequently, the vaccine is actually less effective for them. It’s also less effective for babies under 2, a demographic which is also said to be at special risk for flu complications.  In fact, according to the CDC, the flu vaccine is most effective in healthy individuals over the age of 2 and under the age of 65 with no underlying health problems- the ones who are least likely to suffer death or complications from the flu to begin with.  And what about the studies showing how effective the flu vaccine is? The CDC admits that randomized studies are the best method for determining efficacy, but says that most of its studies are observational because ” Randomized studies are expensive and are not conducted after a recommendation for vaccination has been issued, as withholding vaccine from people recommended for vaccination would place them at risk for infection, illness and possibly serious complications. For that reason, most U.S. studies conducted to determine the benefits of flu vaccination in the elderly are observational studies.” (The preceding information and quote are taken from the CDC’s Vaccine Effectivness page.) In other words, the CDC has already decided that the flu vaccine is effective and safe without rigorous testing and studies, and because they have decided that the flu vaccine is safe, extensive testing and studies are not necessary.

Flu Vaccine Excipients  

Afluria, Flucelvax and Fluvirin contain beta propiolactone, a chemical for which little data exists regarding its effects on humans, though animal studies have found tumors resulting in subcutaneous injection. Afluria also contains potassium chloride, which can be used to treat extreme salt depletion, but is also used as the third and final drug in the lethal injection process and in smaller doses to induce late term abortions. Afluria also contains calcium chloride, which according to the Materials Safety Data Sheet is mutagenic and tumirogenic, meaning it causes both genetic mutations and tumors. Agriflu, Fluarix, Fluzone and Flulaval all contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. FluMist contains the neurotoxin MSG and hydrolyzed porcine gelatin.   You can find a comprehensive list of vaccines (including flu shots) and their excipients from the CDC here. If you are opposed to animal testing or using any product derived from an animal, you may wish to consider that most flu shots contain egg byproducts and Flucelvax contains dog kidney byproducts.

How About Hand Sanitizer?

I  also include disinfectant wipes and similar products under this too. These aren’t bad ideas, but you need to be aware of what the limitations really are.  Recent studies have come out on the real world effectiveness of hand sanitizer.  Turns out that hand sanitizer kills 99.9% of all germs under laboratory settings. In real life, it’s more like 46–60%. So once you’ve thoroughly washed your hands or a surface, applying hand sanitizer or a wipe can kill some additional germs. But if you’re touching a surface like the handrail of a public bus or a shopping cart handle, you’re still picking up a lot of germs.

So while the flu shot may not be the silver bullet for taking down influenza, the good news is that if you are otherwise healthy with no other preexisting health conditions (and you don’t get an overdose of aspirin), you will probably recover from the flu quite easily anyway.

Update, September 2015- The CDC has released a statement saying that the 2014 flu vaccine was only about 14% effective. They say it is usually more like 50-60% effective. Even at normal strength, how do they expect to achieve herd immunity, which requires 80% or more of a population to be effectively vaccinated and immune to a disease?

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Herd Immunity or Herd Mentality: Vaccination Culture in America

You’ve probably heard that vaccination is a medical and scientific practice. But if you take a step back you’ll see that it is very much a part of our culture too. Consider the role vaccines play in our lives:

Technology and the Industrial Revolution: Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, Americans became fascinated with the idea that technology could solve all the big problems. It was increasing efficiency in manufacturing, allowing us to have wonderful things like electricity and continues to make our lives better today. We have become enamored with medical technology. The more complex the procedure or device, the more we are in awe of our ability to conquer disease. But a high-tech solution doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Think about it. We have pacemakers, but for most people the solution for heart disease is simply to eat a better diet. We have pharmaceuticals for everything imaginable, but if you listen to the disclaimers for all those drug commercials, you’ll hear that they often come with the risk of cancer or immunocompromisation. Antibiotics were hailed as the promise of a disease free future, only to find that the bacteria are become resistant to them. Pesticides like DDT were thought to eliminate disease by ridding us of insects, but what they were really ridding us of was an ecosystem as they poisoned birds and other wildlife. Are we really trading one illness for another? Vaccines have been the same. We love the idea that some how combining complex technology and science will result in a quick and effective solution, but the reality is that despite all of our high tech solutions, we are sicker than ever before. Yet the dream of using this particular technology to conquer disease holds a powerful sway over our minds and hearts, so much so that we continue to defend it when it does not work. (Technology was conquering disease before vaccination, it was just less romantic: indoor plumbing, sewage treatment, hot tap water and sinks…)

Rites of Passage: Vaccinations mark many of the important events in our life now. When a baby is born, he receives a Hepatitis B shot and several more throughout the first year of his life. Children get a measles booster before kindergarten, the HPV vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls just before the onset of puberty, Boy Scouts are required to have vaccinations before leaving for scout camp, college students are advised to receive the meningitis vaccine the summer before leaving for college, and women are supposed to get the flu shot during pregnancy. We now associate vaccines with significant events in our lives and they have become a ritual that mark rites of passage. I think this is one reason why vaccines have become so culturally important in America. We have so few traditions and rituals left that families and communities perform, but the act of vaccination is a shared experience that we can all relate to and that is one of the reasons that we are so averse to the idea of it being dangerous or ineffective.

Civic Duty: Because vaccination is perceived as being essential to the common good, it has taken on the status of civic duty, much like voting. The culture we have created surrounding vaccination gives us a lot of positive feedback when we vaccinate ourselves or our children. Look at most vaccination campaign advertisements. You will see cute, chubby babies or smiling mothers with a band aid on the arm. The implied message is that if you love your baby, you will vaccinate. It’s a very powerful message. And when someone doesn’t vaccinate, one of the first criticisms that we throw at them is how they are endangering others. If you’ve been reading the posts here on diseases, you know that vaccination has been far less effective than we have been led to believe. One person who doesn’t vaccinate is actually not a danger to others because many vaccinated individuals are actually carrying the diseases they have been vaccinated for and modern sanitation and nutrition eliminated many of the deaths from these diseases before vaccination. This means that vaccination is not a moral or civic duty, but a matter of choice on health matters.

If you want to vaccinate yourself or your children, go right ahead. If you want to believe that it is contributing to the common good, you are entitled to that opinion. But you are not participating in a proven scientific procedure. To a large degree, you are simply participating in a traditional rite of passage.