What You Probably Haven’t Heardabout the Flu

by Melissa Diane Smith

Turn on the TV and flip through various news stations these days and you likely will be bombarded with information on flu and H1N1 (swine) flu vaccines and antiviral drugs as defense against a devastating flu pandemic. The news we hear about getting vaccines (and antiviral drugs at the first signs of flu) seems so relentless and definitive, it must be based on solid, universally agreed-upon science, most of us think. But the news we don’t hear is that some top flu experts have serious questions about the use of vaccines and antiviral drugs. We also don’t hear much about nutritional and natural ways that may boost immunity as a defense against flu because companies and health professionals who convey that information get warnings from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not to.

The Flu Vaccine

In “Does the Vaccine Matter?,” an article by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer in The Atlantic, the authors give a bigger picture about the flu and the pharmaceutical agents that are used against it. (Read the full article.) The authors point out that more than 200 viruses and other pathogens can cause the symptoms that make up “influenza-like illness,” and in up to two-thirds of the cases of flu-like illness, no cause can be found.

The U.S. public policy on flu protection has centered on a flu vaccine and it has become ingrained dogma. When physicians question the validity of the often-repeated information that the flu vaccine reduces mortality by 50 percent, they are often dismissed, ostracized, or threatened. When one Seattle physician and investigator began wondering more about the research on the flu vaccine, people told her, “No good can come of [asking] this. Potentially a lot of bad could happen” by raising any criticisms, The Atlantic quotes her as saying.

The researcher, Lisa Jackson, persisted and joined with three colleagues to conduct new studies that suggest the vaccine might not reduce mortality at all.

Tom Jefferson, a physician based in Rome and head of the Vaccines Field at the Cochrane Collaboration, a respected international network of researchers who review medical evidence, has stronger views about the flu vaccine. He said the evidence for the flu vaccine is not very good because most of the studies on it were deeply flawed and “rubbish,” the adjective he used to describe them.

Jefferson has called for large, well-constructed, placebo-controlled trials to test the vaccine in the population to see if it is effective. Yet National Institutes of Health (NIH) and CDC public-health officials have said it would be “unethical” to test the vaccine. The article quotes Jefferson as saying:

“We have built huge, population-based policies on the flimsiest of scientific evidence. The most unethical thing to do is to carry on business as usual.”

Antiviral Drugs

There are also questions about the second part of the government’s anti-pandemic flu strategy – the drugs, osektamivir and zanamivir, better known as Tamiflu and Relenza. Some national, state and local public-health officials liberally recommend the drugs. But flu can become resistant to Tamiflu within several days and the World Health Organization issued an alert in August, recommending that Tamiflu and Relenza not be overused but instead be used only in severe cases and in patients with a high risk of serious complications.

The U.S. made the decision to begin stockpiling Tamiflu for the military during the tenure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who held millions of dollars’ worth of stock in the company that holds the patent on Tamiflu, according to the article. And the U.S. stockpiled it against a possible outbreak of bird flu and now again for H1N1 flu.

But there are some concerns about its use. The Atlantic article states:

As with vaccines, the scientific evidence for Tamiflu and Relenza is thin at best. In its general-information section, the CDC’s Web site tells readers that antiviral drugs can “make you feel better faster.” True, but not by much. On average, Tamiflu (which accounts for 85 to 90 percent of the flu antiviral-drug market) cuts the duration of flu symptoms by 24 hours in otherwise healthy people. In exchange for a slightly shorter bout of illness, as many as one in five people taking Tamiflu will experience nausea and vomiting. About one in five children will have neuropsychiatric side effects, possibly including anxiety and suicidal behavior. In Japan, where Tamiflu is liberally prescribed, the drug may have been responsible for 50 deaths from cardiopulmonary arrest, from 2001 to 2007, according to Rokuro Hama, the chair of the Japan Institute of Pharmacovigilance.

So, what’s the bottom line? The authors conclude their investigative story with this summary:

The safety of the swine flu vaccine remains to be seen. In the absence of better evidence, vaccines and antivirals must be viewed as only partial and uncertain defenses against the flu. And they may be mere talismans. By being afraid to do the proper studies now, we may be condemning ourselves to using treatments based on illusion and faith rather than sound science.

Reference:

Brownlee, Shannon, and Lenzer, Jeanne. Does the Vaccine Matter? The Atlantic, November 2009 – see the article.

References for comments below:

Kelly, Andrea. Online outlet featuring Weil gets warning on products. Arizona Daily Star, October 18, 2009, p. A5.

Kijak E, Foust G., and Steinman RR. Relationship of blood sugar level and leukocyte phagocytosis. Journal of the Southern California Dental Association, September 1964;32:349-351.

Painter, Kim. Add sugar, subtract immunity? Some doctors see more than a grain of truth to it. USA Today, October 5, 2009, p. 5D – see article.

Sanchez A, et al. Role of sugar in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 1973;26:1180-1184.

Melissa’s Comments:

I thought you’d like to have this information that you don’t get to hear on the nightly news. I encourage you to read the full Atlantic article. One of its authors is the author of the book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer.

As an add-on to this story, you should also know that some companies that sell supplements with herbal ingredients that may help increase immune function thereby providing some protection against the flu have gotten warnings from the FDA when they have tried to provide educational information about those ingredients. Weil Lifestyle LLC, the online store featuring natural health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, was one that was sent a warning from the FDA last Thursday regarding its vitamin packs and immune support formula. It was the opinion of the FDA/FTC that the language in editorial content on that site was in violation of current standards. The copy was removed from the site and changed.

A few writers have recently covered the issue of reducing sugar as a way to boost immunity to help protect against illness, such as the article “Add Sugar, Subtract Immunity?,” which ran a few weeks ago in USA Today. In studies from a few decades ago, sugar was found to reduce the germ-killing ability of white blood cells and the production of antibodies, proteins that combine with and inactivate foreign invaders in the body. The story quotes an infectious-disease specialist who says that that’s not evidence that would convince most doctors. But it’s convincing enough for me and so is my clinical experience working with clients for more than fifteen years. (Ever wonder why so many people get sick between Halloween and New Year’s? Much more sugar is in people’s diets during that time. Does that seem like just coincidence?)

A key bit of information missing from public dialogue about the flu, vaccines, and anti-viral drugs is that the germ theory of disease is antiquated. Why is it that when a group of people are exposed to the same virus, some people come down with it, and some don’t? It’s because the internal condition of the body matters more in terms of whether you get the illness or not. Viruses and other invaders are present in our environment all the time, ready to take hold and cause illness in people with weakened immune systems. They don’t cause illness in everyone who is exposed to them. It only makes sense to try to strengthen your internal environment by, for example, eating real food, not junk food.

Each person needs to be as informed as possible and decide on what is best for his health based on all the available information. Feel free to spread the word to others about the little-known information covered here.

What will I be doing during the fall/winter season? Keeping my internal environment strong by avoiding sugar, eating well, getting adequate sleep, reducing stress levels, and continuing to take my supplements. If you’ve never tried avoiding sugar in all its forms, this fall/winter season is the perfect time to begin. You just might be amazed at the results.

Copyright © 2009 Melissa Diane Smith

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