Needled by the flu vaccine shortage? Don’t be!

Radio 4 informs me this morning that doctors are being advised to ration flu vaccines due to problems with supply. For those left out in the cold or who are uncomfortable about being vaccinated against a condition that is almost always self-limiting and without complication, I have attached a couple of articles which explore natural remedies for flu. The first of these focuses on the role of vitamin C and extracts of black elderberry in this respect, while the other looks at the evidence for and against the use of the herb Echinacea. In practice, I’ve found that these natural remedies seem to be generally effective in reducing the severity or duration of a bout of flu.

Observer Column ” 24th October 2004

The distinct chill we’ve had in the air of late will inevitably herald the usual seasonal influx of cold and flu. Lest we forget that such wintry infections are on their way, the Government recently launched a high profile media campaign urging those at high risk of flu to get vaccinated against it. However, the very same week that the Government made this push, it also suspended the licence of a major flu vaccine manufacturer because of problems with sterility. The shortage of stocks and delays this is anticipated to cause is likely to needle a fair few individuals keen to protect themselves from virulent infections this winter.

It occurred to me that unfortunates who find themselves without the protection of flu vaccination may be glad to know of contingency medicaments from out of the natural medicine chest. Such remedies may also, of course, be of value to those who are not deemed suitable candidates for vaccination, or who simply refuse it altogether. The natural substance perhaps most renowned for its anti-viral and immune-stimulating properties is vitamin C. Despite the fact that vitamin C is often recommended for its ability to prevent colds and flu, the science shows that it is quite ineffective for this purpose. On the plus side, however, high doses of this nutrient have considerable healing potential once the flu virus has set up camp in the body.

In one study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapy the effect of mega-dosing with vitamin C was tested in a group of over 700 individuals. Throughout the course of a winter, about two-thirds of the test group were treated with painkillers and decongestants should they fall foul of cold or flu. In the remaining third, winter infections were treated with vitamin C at a dose of 1000 mg (1 g) each hour for six hours, followed by 1000 mg three times a day until the infection resolved. Overall, those receiving vitamin C treatment had cold and flu symptoms reduced by 85 per cent compared to those receiving conventional treatment. High dose vitamin C may loosen the bowels, though this effect invariably resolves once the dose is suitably reduced.

Another natural flu remedy is the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.). In the laboratory, black elderberry extract has been shown to incapacitate several strains of the influenza virus, and studies show that it activates the immune system and helps it mount a more effective defence against invading organisms. In a piece of research published earlier this year in the Journal of International Medical Research, the effects of black elderberry extract were tested in a group of individuals afflicted by flu. Half the group were treated with 15 mls of black elderberry extract, four times day for five days, while the other half took a placebo. Those taking the black elderberry extract became well an average four days earlier than individuals taking inactive medication. Black elderberry extract is available from most health food stores under the brand name Sambucol. This comes in a variety of forms including one for children. For those wishing to take a belt and braces approach, I recommend taking deploying vitamin C and black elderberry extract together. In practice, this combination has proved to be a potent weapon for those engaged in germ warfare.

Observer Column – 13th November 2005

As the cold season is upon us, and bird flu neurosis reaches fever pitch, there is a good chance increasing numbers of us will be looking at ways of protecting ourselves from viral invasion. One commonly used natural remedy for the prevention and treatment of the viral infections such as cold and flu is the herb Echinacea. However, earlier this year, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that Echinacea did not protect individuals from the common cold. This study was accompanied by an editorial in the same edition of the journal which concluded that Echinacea is, essentially, useless remedy, and one that consumers should leave out in the cold.

The author of this editorial, Dr Wallace Sampson (a cancer specialist based in California), went on to suggest that remedies such as Echinacea were not even worthy of study, on the basis that they are implausible. However, Echinacea has been shown to activate immune cells, known as natural killer cells, which have anti-viral action. This herb has also been shown to boost the production of a substance called interferon, which should also help the body ward off viral infections. In his editorial, Dr Sampson acknowledges Echinacea’s immune-stimulating potential, which leaves me wondering what it is about this herb’s proposed ability to ward off infection that Dr Sampson finds so implausible

My personal belief is that the methods used in the study which inspired the editorial are open to considerable question. For instance, the study involved instilling the cold virus directly into the noses of test subjects ” a technique that does not necessarily accurately represent how we are exposed to the cold virus an acquire colds in the real World. Also, there has been criticism from some herbalists that the dose of the specific type of Echinacea used in the study (Echinacea angustofolia) was less than a third of the accepted effective dose.

The results of this single study also need to be taken in the context of the wider evidence. A year 2000 review of dozens of studies looking at the ability of Echinacea to prevent and/or treat the common cold found that the majority of studies found Echinacea had positive effects, and concluded that overall, the results suggested that some echinacea preparations may be better than placebo.

This review is referred to by Dr Sampson in a way which suggests that Echinacea was not found to be at all beneficial. It seems Dr Sampson’s apparent distortion of the facts regarding Echinacea may have come from a deeply ingrained scepticism of natural medicine: the last line of his editorial describes the alternative-medicine movement as an errant social-medical trend. Despite the comments of some cynical medical commentators, my experience in practice and a significant amount of evidence suggests that Echinacea does indeed have the potential to provide cold comfort.

One Response to Needled by the flu vaccine shortage? Don’t be!

  1. M Goins 3 November 2009 at 1:14 am #

    My daughter had to take lots of antibiotics when she was younger due an invasive surgery and her immune system was weakened. She ended up in the hospital every cold/flu season for years, some years twice. Since we started her on Echinacea to boost her immune system she has not been in hospital. She has been able to fight off seasonal sickness since then. We know it works!!!!

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