‘Roll up’ for the flu vaccine? I think not.

I walked past my local GP surgery the day before yesterday. Outside, they’re flying a banner which reads something like ‘Roll up! Roll up! for your Flu Vaccine’. Flu vaccination seems to be pushed increasingly hard, especially for ‘at risk’ individuals such as the over-65s. Generally, we’re given the impression that having a flu jab will almost assure protection from flu over the coming months. However, new evidence suggests we’d be wide of the mark here.

Research published recently in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases finds that the most commonly used flu vaccine there (known as the trivalent vaccine) are, overall, 59 per cent effective [1]. The authors of this study concede that this is significantly lower than the effectiveness figures commonly quoted by authorities.

But let’s see what an effectiveness of 59 per cent actually means: let’s say we round up 100 people who have had the flu and had not been immunised. If all of these individuals had been immunised, though, 41 would have got the flu. This may seem like a reasonable result, still, until you start to consider that of all the people who get flu jabs, only a small percentage were destined to get flu anyway.

What this means is that the vast majority of people who get the flu jab will not benefit from it one iota. That’s not a reason not to have it necessarily. But it is something that I believe should be made plain to people before they ‘roll up! roll up!’.

And here’s another thing that came out of the research: For certain sections of the community, there really is not good evidence for the effectiveness of flu vaccine, and that includes the over-65s. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract (summary) of the study:

Influenza vaccines can provide moderate protection against virologically confirmed influenza, but such protection is greatly reduced or absent in some seasons. Evidence for protection in adults aged 65 years or older is lacking.

About this time last year, I wrote a blog post about flu vaccination, which was triggered by a conversation I had with my parents about it. Both my parents are retired doctors but traditionally took different views on this practice: my dad was dead against it, while my mum dutifully attended for her annual flu jab as requested. My mum found she would get a persistent cough after her flu jab (possibly coincidence, but perhaps not), and when we discussed the likelihood of her benefiting in real terms she decided to forgo it last year. You can read about this here.

Next time I see my mum I’m going to be telling her about the fact that we have no good evidence that flu vaccination benefits individuals in her age group, and communicate these latest findings on the effectiveness of flu vaccination too. My mum’s not a political person, but I have a sense she’ll be somewhat shocked. I suspect my dad, on the other hand, will say nothing but sit there with an ‘I told you so’ look on his face.


1. Osterholm MT, et al. Efficacy and effectiveness of influenza vaccines: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Early Online Publication, 26 October 2011

23 Responses to ‘Roll up’ for the flu vaccine? I think not.

  1. Ned Clack 27 October 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    There’s an interesting study by Jackson et al demonstrating that people who are inclined to be vaccinated against flu are as a group less likely to get the disease in any case because they have other healthy behaviours as well.

  2. Lisa Thomas 27 October 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Could you please advise me if Flu vaccination has any effect on thyroid sufferers?

  3. John Walker 28 October 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    I told you so!

  4. jayney goddard 28 October 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    Timely and very helpful information John. There is so much dis-information out there regarding this jab. My Dad’s response to anyone who tells him that they are about to “roll up, roll up” is to ask them which kind of ‘flu they are planning to get. (He is not a medical man at all – but realises – logically – that viruses mutate and you’d need a rather efficient crystal ball to be able to predict how the ‘flu virus will manifest itself in the northern hemisphere each winter – and that you can’t just go by what they just had in Oz!)

  5. Feona 28 October 2011 at 6:11 pm #

    An 89 year old friend had hers last week and has had a streaming nose, a cough, and feels tired ever since. Same thing happened last year. I’ve just refused one for the second year. Why I should suddenly need it just because I’m over 65 I can’t imagine. I’m convinced it weakens the immune system if anything and certainly does no good whatsoever.

  6. Galina L 28 October 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    I prevent many illnesses , flues included, by practicing LC diet. Newer participated in any flue vaccination and never let my son to get it. My husband received flue shots at work in past 2 times, each time got really sick afterwords. Another example of government-pushed mass-stupidity.

  7. Hannah James 28 October 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    It’s funny that you should mention your Mum having a persistent cough after the jab because my Dad has refused to have his done this year because of the cough as well!

  8. Gill Dunn 28 October 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    I developed polymyalgea rheumatica soon after my ‘flu jab 5 years ago and was convinced there was a connection. The site of main pain started from needle site. I was on steroids for 2 years and haven’t had jab since. PR is most prevalent in women over 60. It was diagnosed around the time the flu jab was introduced. First time my GP laughed at me when I refused it – second time he said,’The science wouldn’t support you but I do hear what you’re saying’. More to it than meets the eye.

  9. fred 28 October 2011 at 11:34 pm #

    What about the immuno-suppressed? As someone permanently on immuno-suppressants and allegedly more at risk of “catching stuff”, should I pay any attention to this suggestion that the flu vacccine may be a waste of time for some people? Am I part of the “some people” or not?

  10. Neil Fiertel 29 October 2011 at 1:06 am #

    In 1989 I got the flu. I started recovering and then I got what I thought was a relapse not realising that there is no such thing and what happened in fact was a serious case of pneumonia. I would not have had the latter had I not had the former and that year was the first year that I neglected to get the flu vaccine. I get it AND after I had recovered from pneumonia, I also got the vaccine for pneumonia which is essentially 100% effective for that dangerous disease. I suggest contrary to the good doctor that you get the flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine at the same time. Neither is any big deal and even if it does not guarantee immunity it is a lot better than what happened to me as I nearly died…I was but 50 years old at the time. Consider well NOT getting at least the pneumonia vaccination. It is ludicrous not to do so. It might save your life. I often agree with Dr. Briffa but not in this case at all. If the vaccine for flu had many bad side effects, fine I can see skipping it but this year’s was inoccuous. I had it two weeks ago..not even so much as a stiff arm. It is a no brainer to get it.

  11. Ronnie Plant 29 October 2011 at 2:13 am #

    As set out in my book ‘SELLING SICKNESS!’ the promotion of the flu jab, (which is a hit and miss affair anyway), can be likened to prescribing statins and many other totally unnecessary chemical drugs, with many perfectly healthy people being put on drugs for life. The blatant overuse of the prescription pad is a license to print money. In all too many instances it amounts to selling sickness and if anybody requires evidence to this effect I can provide much, having been given permission by those who in many instances have been prescribed up to as many as 20 drugs,many of them seriously harmed for life. It is blatantly obvious that GPs can do as thy wish, without check. Read ‘SELLING SICKNESS’ to discover much that is wrong within the sickness industry which our Health Service has now become.

  12. Marian 29 October 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Ahh …Your mum and dad sound like real sweeties!

  13. Donald Scott 29 October 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Did some research to find out what’s in the regular flu jab. Most take the manufacture of vaccines on trust. Whenever I’ve contacted companies who produce for the British market I’ve found them evasive and far from transparent. You know more about what goes into your cereal packet than your medicines!

    •Egg proteins: including avian contaminant viruses
    •Gelatin: known to cause allergic reactions and anaphylaxis are usually associated with sensitivity to egg or gelatin
    •Polysorbate 80 (Tween80™): can cause severe allergic reactions,including anaphylaxis
    •Formaldehyde: known carcinogen
    •Triton X100: a strong detergent
    •Sucrose: table sugar
    •Resin: known to cause allergic reactions
    •Gentamycin: an antibiotic
    •Thimerosal: mercury is still in multidose vials (in the States & Europe).

    There are also a number of adjuvants added to ‘boost’ vaccine uptake and antigenic response in the recipient. These vary from product to product, but some authorities reckon these can cause as many iatrogenic effects as the principal compounds in the vaccine. No trials exist to confirm safety nor benefit either way.

  14. Donald Scott 29 October 2011 at 10:46 am #

    In reply to Neil Fiertel, we are all biologically similar but we also have our differences. Yesterday alone I saw 3 patients who recently (10-14 days ago), had their flu jab; 2 had large blood blisters and swelling; all 3 had felt febrile within 24hrs of receiving the innoculation (this is normal for 2-3 days but not thereafter); all 3 had muscle pain and couldn’t lie on their painful shoulder; 1 had neck pain, enlarged neck gland enlargement and headache.

    So reactions are variable. Worryingly none had been warned about what side-effects or adverse reactions could be experienced, nor what to do if these occurred. So hardly informed consent?

  15. Pauline 29 October 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Neil, I had no idea there was such a thing as a pneumonia vaccine. I’m with you on this one. Will the flu vaccine do harm? Unlikely. Can the flu vaccine save lives? Very likely. You may not be the person who will get the flu but how do you know?

    I think concentrating on eating a nutrient dense diet (liver, meat, low polyunsaturated fats, limiting grains, vit D supplementation) will go a long way to boost immunity. Unfortunately, most people don’t enjoy this kind of diet and therefore could benefit by having the flu jab.

    I’m no doctor though.

  16. Scott 29 October 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    The US CDC estimates that 5-20% of the US populations gets the flu each year. Let’s call it 12.5%. So, out of 100 people, about 12 would get the flu. If you gave them all shots, 41% of those 12 (5) would still get the flu. So, if you get the jab, your chances of getting the flu go from 12.5% to 5%.

  17. Tom McAnea 31 October 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    I agree with the above comments that big pharma are keen to medicalise much of our lifestyle, in order to create markets for their drugs. I also agree that the flu vaccine can cause adverse effects in many people. There is clearly a debate to be had about overall benefits froma national programme, versus risks. It is always complex in trying to work around individual benfits/risks versus whole population, public health-led programmes such as this.
    However, there is a danger of this straying into the conspiracy theories out there about immunisations e.g. MMR. As a GP I am not able to ‘do as I wish’ as one commented above, nor am I secretly engaged in a pharmacological conspiracy to peddle drugs for personal gain (though GPs are paid to meet vaccination targets). I have been vaccinated myself (for flu), and my two children have been vaccinated with MMR. When rates of coverage decreased in London, children started dying from measles again-vaccination works. As regards flu, I think it is for an individual to decide, with all the information at their disposal. I am happy to have that discussion with nay patient-and respect their wishes.

  18. Millie from APRIL charity 1 November 2011 at 12:39 am #

    Flue jab from one supplier was recently withdrawn in UK due to excessive reports of adverse reactions. The Medicines Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) admit on their web site. I have no idea in what form the ADRs took – my GP’s practice were informed of this by the local PCT. However a pharmacist in London, advertising in lare notice in window ‘ Free Flue Jab’ did not know. I had to help him find the information on his computer – so much for patient safety!

    I do know a professor of pharmacology who had a reaction from last years flue jab that involved paralysis of the limbs. My local GP practice was informed of the withdrawn product by the pct

  19. Yolanda 8 December 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    40 years of study by the national cold and flu unit in the UK failed to even prove the contagen theory of flu. Its not whether to have the jab or not, because vaccines are exempt from RCT comparitive studies with placebo there actually is no EBM for the efficacy of it whatsoever.

    It’s not a pro or anti stance either, the data for efficacy does not exist, I have never caught flu because no one does, it is difficult to understand how in a modern world people are taught to believe such a stupid idea and then be lured into taking a false medication to stay mythically well!

    The 96 season review of the flu jab in UK by the cochraine collaboration scotched the promo myths of flu jab efficacy and found virtually nothing to support its use as a theraputic.

    One myth that flu jab halves winter deaths was highlighted, only 10% of winter deaths are attributed to flu like illness, that’s not even confirmed just ‘like’. For the flu jab to halve winter deaths it would have to have an impact on road traffic accidents! But MDs routinly use this myth to scare old people into having it.

  20. Nadia 17 February 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Had a flu jab back in 2003, as it was “encouraged” at my place of work and it was free. So I thought, what the heck, why not. How NAIVE I was. Firstly, it made me sick within 24 hours and I have had a runny congested nose, an allergy to Birch trees and accompanying seasonal hives ever since…. Now trying to heal myself with a low carb diet, organic coconut oil and quercitin. It’s a slow process, but I AM getting better! 🙂

  21. Raylene 26 February 2012 at 9:06 am #

    After reading 17 pages of “comments” from a different vaccine article that called people like me lazy, stupid, that I should pay for my own health care should my kids ever catch a childhood disease…and the like, I would like to say that these comments here are a breath of fresh air. I can’t believe how people get so emotionally involved in this issue! I have been studying vaccines for 15 years, amassed probably 8″ of paper on the whole matter, see a naturopath on my own dime and I kind of take offense to being called lazy! When I read (or ask advice from a dr.) about a subject and then make a decision about it, I am taking responsibility for my decisions and I have to live with them. I don’t take it lightly at all that if my kids become sick with a “vaccine-preventable illness” that it is my fault, nor if they become vaccine injured. Nobody else has to take that responsibility and therefore nobody cares more than me! I do not understand people that leave that right and responsibility in the hands of other people. (Especially ones who feel it necessary to call other people down).
    Will write a bit more later, hubby is waiting for me. Thanks for a place to vent.


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