IBD | Information
“Name… Birthdate… have you gotten your flu shot yet?”
That has become my greeting for weeks since I recently became a Pharmacy Technician. Before this, I was a broadcast and digital producer. In both of these professions I’ve heard a lot of myths and claims about vaccines- especially for influenzas.
I’m still a journalist though, and a firm believer in transparency. I have already got my flu shot this year and have for several years now. My son has and will receive all of the vaccinations recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I support science. However science calls to test old theories. To be best informed, I believe in reading from different publications and learning from a variety of perspectives.
With that, let’s dive into the facts about the 2019-2020 Influenza Vaccine options! Since many of our Girls with Guts are restricted to vaccines with inactive- aka dead- viruses, I’m going to focus solely on the shot instead of the nasal spray.
Influenza is complicated.
There are four types of influenza, but it’s only type A and B that cause seasonal epidemics. It’s the type A influenza viruses that have been known to cause devastating pandemics such as the H1N1 virus that caused the infamous 1918 influenza outbreak (aka the Spanish Flu). This is because type A mutates quickly and can be transmitted from animal to human.
Influenza is serious.
Influenza can be deadly. Period.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention say the 2018-19 flu season caused 36,400 – 61,200 deaths in America.
It is the complications people suffer from when they have influenza that make it so serious, namely pneumonia. Pneumonia is when there is an infection in the lungs and they begin to fill with liquid. Pneumonia is often the cause of death for people with compromised immune systems, regardless of underlying conditions or diseases. It killed Freddie Mercury, Harriet Tubman, Calamity Jane, even U.S. President William Harrison while he was in office.
These deadly complications are part of the reason we need to limit the seasonal spread of the flu. This isn’t a scare tactic. These are legitimate risks- especially for people with chronic illness. Having an Inflammatory Bowel Disease like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis already increases your risk for pneumonia- and that’s before we add influenza to the picture. Treatments including biologics and immunomodulators weaken our immune system, and leave many Girls with Guts more vulnerable to overall infections. And if we get sick, it can get serious quickly.
The flu shot isn’t just an American concept.
The World Health Organization (WHO) not only approves of the flu vaccine, they have gotten involved. Due to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year around the world, researchers in 115 countries work together to track variations of influenza throughout the year and decide on strains will most likely to do the most harm in the months ahead. They meet twice for each season. You can read their stance on this year by clicking here.
What’s really in the vaccines?
The Food and Drug Administration takes the WHO’s recommendations, and works with the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to decide on each season’s vaccination. They also chose which companies will manufacture it.
Your seasonal flu shot typically will contain two type of A viruses and either one or two type B viruses. No matter the manufacturer, your flu shot this year in America will contain:
If you receive a shot with four vaccines, also known as Quadrivalents, you will also get:
That also means strict guidelines and regulations on ingredients.
Viruses: While I once though the flu shot just had a bunch of influenza viruses floating around the place, it’s not that simple. The chosen viruses are first allowed to replicate and grow in either fertilized chicken eggs or more recently MDCK cells (origin: the kidney of a female Cocker Spaniel). Using cells allows people with egg allergies to get the vaccine.
The viruses are then split from the egg/cell and “inactivated.” This process can vary from each manufacturer but you end up with either viruses split or just parts of the virus. When your body detects these parts, The immune response kicks in and you create a powerful defense. It’s really just empowering your immune system to recognize the virus if it comes into contact with it in the future to take fight it more easily, because it has the antibodies already needed to fight it off.
Then we gotta add a few things to keep the vaccine clean and safe for you.
Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is used to inactivate any toxins created by the viruses or the production process that could harm you. Some flu shots contain at most .02 mg of formaldehyde. Did you know your body naturally makes much more than that- at least 1 oz (28350mg) each day? While it is naturally occurring, the American Cancer Society does label formaldehyde is a carcinogen and that it can be dangerous in heavy amounts. They appear to be most concerned about formaldehyde in air pollution and workplace environments. They still recommend cancer patients, survivors, and their friends and family get the flu vaccine.
Thimerosal: Thimerosal is another ingredient that has gotten a lot of attention because it contains a natural form of mercury, ethyl mercury. After there were concerns in the U.S. about mercury in vaccines in 1999, national and independent studies across the world conducted extensive research, and found no link between thimerosal and autism or other issues.
It’s also important to note that ethyl mercury differs from its more toxic relative methyl mercury. Ethyl mercury has a short half life and the body is able to dispose of it. Methyl mercury not only has a longer half life, but it accumulates in the body.
You can read opinions on thimerosal by WHO, CDC, FDA. There is even a joint statement by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and the U.S. Public Health Service.
If you’re still not comfortable though, you are now able to get a vaccine that is thimerosal-free. Here’s a list of the shots and manufacturers this year. On the right side you can see which contain thimerosal.
Aluminum: Aluminum is another chemical highly discussed. Aluminum has been used for more than 80 years to improve a vaccine’s effectiveness. It allows the immune system to react better toward the virus, actually reducing the amount of vaccines we need. Like formaldehyde, aluminum can be dangerous- in very high amounts. Aluminum is one of the most abundant elements in nature and you get less in a vaccine than you do in a glass of water. This can be concerning in a patient who has kidney issues. Here’s the CDC’s general information about aluminum.
Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used to prevent serious bacteria infections. There have been no allergic reactions to a vaccine that traced back to the antibiotic used.
Gelatin & other sugars: These are used to stabilize the vaccine and keep it effective after production.
The vaccination is our best defense.
Defining effectiveness isn’t clear cut. There are some contributing factors to think about. The most obvious is the fact influenza, like all viruses, is constantly changing. WHO tries to make its best predictions, but some seasons vaccines are more effective than others.
There are mixed results in mechanisms of researching effectiveness. Most medical experts follow the CDC’s numbers that the shot reduces your chance for influenza by 19-60 percent, but it can very year-to-year. Honestly, it is difficult finding independent studies, but a study from Cochrane found the shot prevented the flu for 1 to 2 percent of healthy adults, but they still recommend getting the vaccine.
What if you get sick?
First, you did not get the flu from the flu shot. You may feel ill, and this is because your body has activated it’s immune response (which is the intent behind the vaccine in the first place), but you did not contract the flu from your flu shot. There are numerous studies and scientific sources that can definitively support that statement. It’s also possible you contracted something similar, like the cold or a sinus infection around the time of your vaccine.
If you do indeed happen to get the flu after getting a vaccine, studies like this and this study found you’ll have a milder form of the disease. It’s also likely to pass less severely and more quickly than the influenza in someone who has not be vaccinated.
Vaccines protect the most vulnerable.
Cochrane’s study looked into healthy adults, but that’s not the group that’s most important to health officials. Like all vaccines, it’s crucial to help people like me (IBD and suppressed immune system), your parents (seniors), your son or daughter (young children and pregnant women), and friends that may also be vunerable to influenza and the complications it can cause.
It is incredibly important for people with weakened immune systems to get a flu shot. They also need to limit their exposure to influenza as much as possible. That’s why healthcare workers need to get a vaccine while they are working with the general public, it not only protects them, but everyone they care for as well.
Nothing is risk-free
We have all heard stories of adverse effects and there are some who have reactions more serious than a sore arm. But the risk of serious health problems caused by influenza heavily (and I mean heavily) outweigh the risk of a side effect. Here’s a look at the side effects researchers have found:
Soreness at injection site
It is rare but there is a small risk of an allergic reaction. Like any medication, an allergic reaction may present itself with difficulty breathing, swelling, high fever, or fast heart rate.
Guillain Barre Syndrome
The CDC says there have been studies linking a potential connection to the flu shot and Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS). They say overall, researchers found fewer than 1 or 2 cases of GBS per one million people vaccinated.
My closing argument.
Much of our opinions are based on personal experience, but I hope I have laid out enough scientific evidence to encourage you to get your flu shot. I also want to reiterate the diversity in my research; it’s not just a government entity or business ploy. Independent and international studies come to the same conclusion: the influenza vaccine can prevent unnecessary deaths.
It can also protect the people you love. I didn’t get my vaccine just for me. It’s to protect my young son. It’s to protect my Mother with Crohn’s Disease. It’s to protect my Dad after he beat cancer. It’s to protect several other family members and friends with compromised immune systems.
If you haven’t yet, please get your flu vaccine. Doctors suggest getting the shot between the beginning of fall and the end of October. You also need to consider the 1-2 weeks for your body to build that immune response, but it’s not too late! Flu seasons do not typically peak until mid-winter.
If you’re a healthy adult and are determined to not get the vaccine, please grant me one thing: don’t allow misinformation to spread as rampant as the influenza virus itself. Share these studies with your friends. Politely fact check that coworker. Support a loved one that decided to get their vaccine.
And always wash your hands.