The flu vaccine is NOT “more dangerous than the flu”

Edited to add: The CDC’s vaccine page as well as this website are both excellent resources if you have further questions about the flu vaccine or vaccines in general. I have done my best to answer questions so far, but I can’t always be here to respond. Thanks to the lovely commenters who have helped me out in this regard!

Anti-vaccine fear-mongering makes me more angry than just about any anti-science bullshit I’ve ever come across.

Why, you might ask? To put it bluntly, BECAUSE IT KILLS PEOPLE.

We vaccinate against diseases that have severe consequences. Some of those diseases are only severe or fatal for a very small percentage of the people who get sick, but when you are talking about an entire country’s population, that still means saving thousands of people from preventable disability or death, not to mention the hundreds of thousands that avoid the extreme unpleasantness of severe illness.

I’ll be the first to admit that vaccines are not risk-free. Vaccines depend on deliberately provoking an immune response to the illness of interest by introducing viral/bacterial proteins into the body along with “adjuvants”–mild irritants that get the attention of the immune system in the absence of actual infection. Getting the balance on this right is crucial: if you don’t get the immune system’s attention well enough, the vaccine is useless, but if you do so TOO well, the person receiving the vaccine will feel sick or even have an allergic reaction. We’ve gotten much better at striking this balance over the years, and vaccines are not allowed to go to market if they cause severe reactions at rates anywhere near the rates of complications from the illness itself. But yes, if you get a vaccination, there is a VERY low risk of severe allergic reaction, a VERY low risk of provoking some other aberrant immune response (autoimmunity), and a medium-low risk of having temporary symptoms like achiness or mild fever.

All that said, many of the things that have been blamed on vaccines are out-and-out lies. Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines are not part of a government conspiracy to mind-control, sterilize, or otherwise control the population. They’re the single greatest public health accomplishment in human history. Without vaccines, we would still live in a world where a large percentage of children didn’t survive to age five, and where substantial portions of the population lived with permanent disabilities such as partial paralysis, blindness, or deafness, due to childhood illnesses. I don’t know about you, but I’m damn grateful that I don’t live in that world.

Anyhow, I’ll probably get more into vaccines at a later date, as–in case you couldn’t tell–this is a topic near to my heart, and I could go on for hours. But today’s rant was brought to you by a bit of idiocy circulating on facebook about the dangers of the flu vaccine, so on that note, some information on the vaccine, followed by some excellent sources for more information.

The Flu Vaccine

Let me say first: The flu kills THOUSANDS every year, and it would be much worse if the vaccine were not available. We are lucky to live in a world where dying of infectious disease isn’t the norm, which is why all this anti-vaccine propaganda has been able to take root, but just because we are less aware of the dangers now doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

If you regularly have contact with older people or very young children, you should get the shot even if you are healthy, to protect them. The flu is unpleasant in the best of cases, but it regularly kills the very old and the very young. Vaccines ARE less likely to be effective for those groups because vaccines depend on the person’s own immune response and those people have weaker immune systems to start with. If those people are healthy enough to get the shot (as determined by their doctor), they still should (it’s better than nothing), but what’s more effective is vaccinating the people AROUND them. It’s called herd immunity, and it’s why your choice to not get vaccinated is about more than just YOU.

It is true that for the flu vaccine, the government has to guess what strains to put in the vaccine based on the previous year and what strains are prevalent around the globe, but they do the best they can with available data and usually manage to be pretty accurate. There are years where they are wrong, and some minor strain gets big just in time for US flu season to start, but that is the exception and not the rule.

And finally, the vaccine is NOT DANGEROUS. The vaccine preservative that contains TINY amounts of mercury is only in some versions of the vaccine anyways, but is NOT dangerous. The ONE thing in that article that is correct is that the flu vaccine does slightly increase narcolepsy rates–though they did fail to mention that SO DOES GETTING THE FLU. The increase in rates is not due to some evil vaccine side effect, it’s due to the fact that we have a protein in our brains (in the cells that regulate wakefulness) that is very similar to a protein produced by some flu viruses, and in a small number of genetically predisposed people, an autoimmune response can occur as a result of exposure to those proteins.

In my mind, here are fact-based reasons to not get the vaccine:

  1.  You are a healthy young adult that doesn’t spend much time around vulnerable (old or young) people, and you’d prefer risking the possibility 2-3 weeks of misery in exchange for avoiding the certain inconvenience of a jab in the arm and the potential for a day or two of mild flu-like symptoms while your immune system responds to the vaccine. (As someone who tends to get the flu really, really badly, and who doesn’t tend to have any unpleasant reactions to vaccines, and who rides public transit with people of all ages on a daily basis, this is not MY choice, but since the flu vaccine is not required for most adults and the need to get it yearly is a pain in the ass, this is a choice you get to make.)
  2. You are significantly immune compromised, due to drugs you take or a current illness.
    If your doctor deserves to call themself an MD, they should tell you not to get the vaccine in this case anyways.

  3. You have a family history of narcolepsy. 
    Very recent scientific studies have shown that narcolepsy occurs in a minority of people with the right genetic background (the right version of specific immune system proteins) plus exposure(s) to a specific protein in the flu virus and the flu vaccine. Now that it is known what protein causes the autoimmune response, researchers are working on producing a vaccine that won’t lead to narcolepsy, but for the time being at least it would be reasonable to avoid the vaccine AND anyone with the flu if you have close genetic relatives with narcolepsy.

  4. You have an egg allergy. 
    The standard flu vaccine is produced by exposing chicken eggs to the flu virus, and as such is contraindicated for those with egg allergies. There are versions of the vaccine now that are made in alternative ways and are safe for those with allergies, but you generally have to get them from your doctor–they aren’t what’s on hand at your average “get a free flu shot here!” drive. So if you have the allergy and WANT the vaccine, you can get vaccinated, but if you were already on the fence, I guess I understand not bothering with the extra hassle?
  5. You have ever had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine.
    Most of the time, 4 and 5 go together, but it is possible to have an allergy to something in the vaccine other than the egg.

28 thoughts on “The flu vaccine is NOT “more dangerous than the flu”

  1. I was just curious……are you a doctor or did you find this stuff and repost it?? Or is it your own opinion?? I don’t vacc my children, do to the fact my oldest almost died at 9 weeks old due to a HORRIBLE reaction from his DTaP immunization! I didn’t want to risk my other children as well!!

    1. I’m a biologist who specialized in infectious disease and I’ve worked in vaccine development labs.

      I’m so, so sorry about your child, but I can tell you from personal experience that the researchers who develop these vaccines want nothing more than to save children from illness and death. They don’t generally make big money off of the vaccines, just standard professors salaries or grad student stipends.

      One lab I worked in spent over a decade on a vaccine for a diarrheal disease in infants (rotavirus), and the vaccine did great in trials but when given on a larger scale, out of hundreds of thousands, a few babies had a life-threatening reaction to the vaccination. Because diarrheal diseases in infants can be very very serious, but are rarely fatal in countries with clean water and good healthcare, it was taken off the market in the US very quickly.

      The calculation of risk-benefit is different for dTAP is different, as the illnesses it protects against can be disabling or fatal for a significant percentage of infants even with excellent medical care. Far, far more babies would die if those diseases were left unchecked in the population than suffer from side effects from the vaccines, especially since it is a very safe vaccine and severe effects are very rare. I know this sounds cold, but this is why vaccines with incredibly small but still very real rates of severe side effects MUST remain in use–because the population as a whole would be much, much worse off if they didn’t exist.

      I know that none of that can be much consolation when your child is the one-in-millions that falls on the wrong side of the odds. And again, I am so, so sorry for what you went through with your child. I can hardly imagine how hard it must have been to almost lose a child from doing what was supposed to be the right thing for them. I hope your child’s case was reported and studied so that vaccines can be made even safer going forward, and so that any mistakes that were made in the care of the child can be prevented in future cases.

      All that said, I can promise you that losing or almost losing a child to pertussis or tetanus would be just as devastating. I know such things are rare now and probably seem impossible to you, but they really aren’t. I understand your reluctance to vaccinate given your past experience, but I would urge you: look up what happens to a person with tetanus toxin in their system. I say tetanus specifically, because while you may be able to keep your children away from exposure to sick people to prevent many of these illnesses (key word: may), tetanus occurs due to random injuries that are near impossible to protect against.

      If the risk of seeing your child suffer from tetanus toxicity doesn’t outweigh your vaccination fears, then probably nothing will. In that case, I can only sincerely hope you are fortunate going forward and your kids never suffer as a result of their lack of vaccinations, and that they never act as carriers and end up infecting an immune compromised person who didn’t have the option to vaccinate.

      1. I don’t think her child actually passed: ‘my oldest almost died’ but I can see where that would scare the crap out of me as a Mom. I did always get the vaccines for my babies though because I believe(d) the greater good was important and that my children were in more danger without them. Not so sure about the new hpv vaccines though 🙁 and I have a pre-teen daughter I have to make a decision about it for…

      2. I think I’m in love with you! That was the most well written article and response to the anti-vaccine movement that I have seen yet.

        1. Oh yes, I am aware of the pertussis outbreaks–we’ve had some out in California too. I was mostly just trying to acknowledge that most adults have no experience with or awareness of these disorders, so they seem to be less relevant than the “dangers” of vaccination, even if that isn’t a correct perception. And I’ve heard anti-vaccine folks say that they’ll just avoid sick people, which is why I brought up tetanus–a disease where that isn’t an option.

    1. What is in the vaccines is not straight mercury, it is an organometallic compound containing mercury. It is still toxic (which is why it can be used as a preservative–it prevents growth of bacteria and fungi in the vaccine solution), but is significantly less toxic than metallic mercury, is present in very, very small amounts.

      The mercury-containing compounds ARE being phased-out as preservatives for standard childhood vaccines, and they are only in some versions of the flu vaccine. Basically, single-dose vials of the vaccine don’t have it, because they don’t need to stay preserved after having been opened. Multi-dose vials still contain trace amounts.

      Notably, to my knowledge there is no convincing evidence that the mercury-containing preservatives in vaccines led to an increased rate of any disorders. My understanding is that there are other preservatives available and single-dose vials are becoming more commonly used, so manufacturers are phasing out the mercury preservatives because of public concern and the theoretical possibility of toxicity.

      Long story short, there are thousands of ways we are exposed to toxic compounds all the time–the best we can do is limit our exposure when we can and focus on the most significant sources. For instance, inhaling for awhile near one broken mercury thermometer is a greater source of mercury than all the vaccines you’ve had in your life… And while doing that deliberately isn’t advisable, people tend to walk away from it not too much worse for wear. Likewise, every fluorescent lightbulb ever contains mercury gas. Ever broken one of those?

      My reading of the data is that vaccines are not one of those major sources of exposure. But if you are concerned, the solution is simple: just ask your doctor to only use single-dose vials of vaccine for your vaccinations. No mercury at all, and you still get covered, everyone is happy.

  2. I love this. In 2009, the swine flu pandemic was world wide. The media was screeching about it. I was pregnant. I tend to think the media overblows a lot and wasn’t too concerned.

    Before the vaccine was even available my son brought home a mild case. Of course the immuno compromised pregnant chick shortly thereafter contracted the swine flu.

    There I was alone in the house wretchung my guts out on my hands and knees in the kitchen. Cleaning up my own vomit as I was heaving. It was lovely.

    My OB refused to see me because it wasn’t an OB problem. My GP refused to see me because I was pregnant and they didn’t want liability of treating a pregnant swine flu patient. Eventually I got treatment, but only AFTER a lawyer got involved. Seriously ridiculous.

    Later my untreated secondary sinus infection landed me in the hospital with premature labor, and anemia. My pediatrician, when dealing with some health challenges with my new born, asked me if there were complications during my pregnancy. I mentioned the swine flu and secondary associated illnesses. He told me how lucky I was for us both to survive, and that her complications such as a heart condition, premature birth, and some developmental delays may very we’ll be attributable to my health during pregnancy.

    Basically, the moral of the story is get vaccinated if you can. You protect yourself and provide herd immunity for the vulnerable.

  3. My granddaughter has ALL (leukemia) and DEPENDS on the rest of the population to get their vaccinations while she is going through treatment and is immune compromised. Hopefully your information will spread as quickly as the misinformation.

  4. I am in my early 50’s and have never had a flu shot and can’t even tell you when the last time was that I had the flu and also I am around students (Pre-K – 12th grade) and still haven’t gotten the flu in the 12 yrs.I have had this job. Now, on the other hand, my sister and a couple other people I know do get the shots and, inevitably, they are sick every year with the flu, broncchitis, sinus infections, etc. While I respect your opinion I will forego the flu shot and stay healthy!

    1. Most healthy people only get an actual influenza infection every 7-13 years. Your 12 years is average, not special. That is one of the misconceptions about influenza. I am not saying you cannot get it two years in a row or even twice in the same year, but it is rare.

  5. I came down with the flu several years ago at age 41. Spent a miserable 2 weeks fighting it only to have it turn into pneumonia. I passed the flu on to my mom who is in her 60’s. She landed in the hospital for over 2 weeks very seriously Ill with pneumonia. Get vaccinated!! For those naysayers who say oh I never get sick… I predict that one run in with the flu will change your mind.

  6. Hi. My daughter is type 1 diabetic. I haven’t immunized her for flu because we meet do flu shots. As I feel this post was chalked full of bias and guilt tripping (and i am not a crunchy non vac mom. We are all vaccinated except my son had a bad reaction to rota and will never give it to any of my babies again) I do wonder if my daughter should be getting the flu vaccine bc she is type 1 or nt get it bc she already has an auto immune disease. Her dr and everyone else says get it but they have given no good reasons besides “everyone needs it”. Well, I don’t want her getting sick from the vaccine itself bc it is so dangerous for her to be sick with anything.

    1. I’m sorry you found the post to be biased and guilt tripping. My intention was not to make people feel bad, it was to educate.

      As for your daughter. I would recommend asking your doctor more specific questions if you are concerned. I am not personally aware of any contraindications for vaccination related to type I diabetes, but you are welcome to search pubmed yourself given that you already believe I’m biased. In general, since the flu vaccine is safe and may cause a mild vaccine reaction at most, I’d be far more concerned with the risks associated with my daughter getting the flu if I DIDN’T vaccinate.

  7. What about vaccines like Hep B that are given to newborns within 12 hours of birth? How vulnerable are newborns to contracting a sexually transmitted disease if the mother does not have hep b?

    Im not against vaccination, but my concern is the amount of vaccines given at such a young age. Are alternative schedules a good option instead of the cdc schedule? Maybe 1 to 2 vaccines every 90 days after 6 months old?

    1. Good morning Dan. Here is an excellent post by a pediatrician and university professor on why the US switched to a policy of vaccinating against Hep B at birth. The short version is that Hep B is not solely a sexually transmitted disease; the US demographics are such that we have a higher percentage of folk with chronic Hep B; and people who contract Hep B in infancy or childhood have much worse outcomes.

  8. Many of the flu vaccines are now preservative free. In fact that is all we offer at our office. Not because thimerosal was dangerous, but because there are so many people who are misinformed about it. They refused to take the flu vaccine.
    To that woman who hasn’t had the flu in 12 years. Congratulations. However, you’re playing Russian roulette with your health.
    You’ve been very lucky. Also, it is cold and flu season. I hear people tell me that they didn’t get the flu vaccine because they always get colds and bronchitis after they got it.. It’s cold and bronchitis and sinusitis season. There are a zillion viruses out there causing illness. It’s not that the flu vac immunocompromised them.

  9. Two things… I have autism in my family. I probably have autism. So I had to blog about vaccines and I did.

    I also probably have narcolepsy according to the opinion of a neurologist. No sleep study has been done yet to confirm it, but I had it BEFORE receiving my flu shot. Honestly, a lot of the symptoms regressed around that time. Correlation is not causation, but I still found that odd after reading what you said. Also, I’m not sure narcolepsy is the word for it because nobody in my family has it (unless the autism genetics is related somehow, I’m not a medical professional to really know). The symptoms showed up right after a traumatic experience, and I think they are related most definitely.

    And Three because I can’t count, I got the flu vaccine for the first time since my childhood, and this is the first year since I’ve had children in school bringing me home everything going around the school that I haven’t gotten sick, well since my flu shot. I was sick when I got it, and had been back to back colds for months, and within 3 days of receiving the flu shot, I got better and haven’t been sick since. Knock on wood. Right now, everyone in my house is sick but me. I’m the only one who got the flu shot. I didn’t the kids because one has an egg allergy and the other is allergic to everything, and the doctors say that studies say it’s not that effective on young children (or the elderly). The husband didn’t really need it, but I told him to go get it and he didn’t. He gets sick once a year and that’s it, and it’s not that bad. He’s just a big baby. The man lays down all day with a tissue in his nostril because the snot. Poor thing has snot. Someone break out the breathing treatment.

  10. My five year old child got the Flumist vaccine this year. Previously, she got an injection with no side effects. About a week after getting the Flumist, she got sick, and her cold developed into pneumonia. Do you think that the form of the vaccination had anything to do with her getting pneumonia, or could it be a coincidence? I am wondering if I should insist on the injection rather than the mist in the future.

  11. Thankfully I don’t get colds very badly and am pretty healthy, so I don’t get the flu shot. In fact, my family has never been big on getting the flu shot; I don’t think I was given it every year as a child either. But, in the event that I have children, I will absolutely be vaccinating them against Measles, Chicken Pox, Hepatitis and all the other things, just like we were as children.
    Thank you for this post. It’s incredibly important for people to be medically informed about these things instead of informed by fear tactics disseminated by media. It’s horrible when things go wring, but the risk is so low for the individual, but if we all stopped vaccinating things like small pox etc could all come back and then we’d all be screwed.

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