Q&A: flu shots

Monica asks:

"What are your thoughts on the flu vaccine for babies? In my case, my ped doesn't offer the vaccine without thimerosal and I can't find one willing to vaccinate my son in the near future. Would you get the regular vaccine or skip it all together?
Also, why can my son sleep through a thunderstorm, but not the sound of my footsteps as I creep out of his room!?"
I don't want to open a whole vaccination can of worms, so let's make this clear that this is only my thoughts about the flu vaccine. Not vaccines or vaccination in general.

Now, I like to look at the benefits vs. the costs. The benefit is, obviously, not getting the flu. But I'm not convinced (and haven't been for years) that the flu shot is actually that great at preventing the flu. My suspicions were confirmed when I read about a study appearing in The Lancet (British medical journal) of elderly people who got the flu shot. A summary of the study results is here, but the money quote is

The researchers found that flu vaccines, when well matched to circulating flu strains, reduced the risk of hospitalization for flu or pneumonia by 45% for elderly (65 or older) nursing home residents. For people living at home, flu vaccines were 26% effective in preventing hospitalization for flu or pneumonia. However, vaccination didn't significantly lower the risk of laboratory-confirmed influenza in either group.

And those benefits, note, are only when the flu shot is well-matched to the flu strain that goes around. Which happens sometimes, but not every year. I don't know whether we can assume that the effects are the same on kids as they are on the elderly, but we don't have any studies of the flu shot on kids yet.

Then there's the anecdotal evidence that that last 3 times I got the flu shot I got the flu within days. (Who knows why? All I knew was I got the flu.) Now, "the plural of anecdote isn't data," (thank you, Jo Leery Polyp) but I have to think that if anyone's going to have the same results of a flu shot that I did, it'll be my kids. Someone who's had a great experience with the flu shot in the past is going to have a radically different view of the benefits than I do.

The costs: There are a bunch of toxic and/or allergenic ingredients in flu vaccines (MSG, thimerosol, a few different antibiotics, formaldehyde, and eggs). Not much of those in each shot, but since I go out of my way to avoid MSG, formaldehyde, and mercury, I'm not crazy about the idea of shooting them straight into my kid's bloodstream.

So, what's the answer? Well, it's different for everyone. If you have a child with a compromised immune system, you will probably get the shot. If you have a kid allergic to eggs or poultry or certain antibiotics, you won't get the shot. The rest of us just have to pick a side by going with our guts.

The odd thing about all of this is that the media makes us think the only way, or even the best way, to protect ourselves against the flu is by getting the flu shot. That's not true at all. The single best way to avoid the flu is to wash your hands a lot. A lot. Many times a day. Not with antibacterial soap, but with regular soap and water. And makes sure you scrub for the length of time it takes you to sing the "Happy Birthday" song. You still probably won't spend as much time each day washing your hands as you do thinking about whether or not to get the shot.

The other great ways to avoid the flu are to up your Vitamin C intake during the winter, drink plenty of water, make sure you're eating plenty of vegetables (easier said than done with a 3-year-old), get as much sleep as possible, and stay away from sick people. You can also try the herbal remedies like echinacea and Airborne, or the homeopathic Oscillococcinum (apparently it can be used to prevent flu by taking 2-3 of the teeny little pellets--not the whole vial--once a week during flu season).

Monica, for your second question I can only say that he does that for the same reason mine can sleep through 3 fire engines screaming down the street past his window, but wakes up when I crack the door to make sure he's still OK.