Here we go again. Just like the popular zombie TV shows, the flu vaccine myths continue to rise from the dead, scaring people away from protecting themselves from a dangerous disease. And just like Rick Grimes, it’s my job to help my fellow skeptics stop this zombie outbreak and safeguard the innocent from the brain eating tropes of the antivaccine crowd.
Since we’re entering the 2017-2018 flu season in the Northern Hemisphere, your best weapon to avoid the effects of the flu is the seasonal flu vaccine. Despite the known overall safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccine, the antivaccination cult is pushing their ignorant nonsense all over social media, especially Facebook.
Let’s take a look at these zombie flu vaccine myths, and debunk them once again. Zombies are so hard to put down.
Flu vaccine myths – here we go
There are so many memes and tropes filled with flu vaccine myths, I just don’t have time to hit them all. So let’s debunk this one, which I’ve seen a bunch of times on Facebook. Basically, the writers have posted “11 reasons why flu shots are more dangerous than the flu itself.” That’s just too funny.
Now, debunking flu vaccine myths is a regular feature here. I’ve got Mark Crislip’s epic rant about flu vaccine denying dumb asses. If you haven’t read that article, be prepared to be overwhelmed with hysterical snark.
Then there’s the article that debunks flu vaccine myths in 25 easy steps, which was updated by Tara Haelle in her Red Wine and Applesauce blog late last year. Seriously, I think nearly every science writer who deals with vaccine deniers has written boatloads of articles about flu vaccine myths. Frankly, some of the flu vaccine deniers tend to have some of the lamest arguments of the whole antivaccine community.
Well, let’s take a look at these “11 reasons why flu shots are more dangerous than the flu itself.” Spoiler alert – they’re all bullshit. And I added one, because it’s become a thing lately.
Myth #1 – the flu shot gives you the flu
This is the most common of the flu vaccine myths, based on what I’ve seen over the past few years. It is completely false.
First, the flu vaccine takes time, around 10-14 days, to induce a complete immune response, so some people do catch the flu after getting the vaccine, but they blame the vaccine for giving them the flu. Correlation does not mean causation. It’s simply bad luck.
Second, the flu vaccine, by it’s very nature, induces an immune response, so that you are protected against the influenza virus. But the virus in the vaccine is inactivated – it confers immunity but is not infectious. There is no way that a flu shot can give you the flu.
Third, the flu vaccine does have side effects that include feeling “under the weather.” It is temporary and a whole bunch less serious than actually getting the flu.
Myth #2 – MERCURY!!!!!!!!!11111111
I still can’t believe this still shows up on the list of flu vaccine myths.
First, and most importantly, this particular myth tries to conflate elemental mercury, which is dangerous, with the ethyl mercury compound called thimerosal (or thiomersal if you speak non-American English). This would be like saying that table salt, which is sodium chloride, is dangerous because it contains chlorine. That is a massive failure in the understanding of basic chemistry. Molecules, combinations of atoms, often have completely separate biological activity than what is seen with elements. If you inhaled pure chlorine, you would probably die. If you consume a reasonable amount of sodium chloride, you’ll be fine, because chlorine, in this case, has different properties in solution when it’s combined with sodium.
Secondly, only multi-use vials (generally, 10 shot vials) contain thimerosal. Why? Because thimerosal has one purpose in life, to prevent bacterial contamination. Multi-shot vials mean that 10 separate syringe needles are pushed into the vial, each with a chance of introducing bacterial contamination. Without thimerosal or other anti-bacterial agent, the vaccine could be contaminated and harm the patient.
Myth #3 – the flu shot can cause Alzheimer’s disease
This myth is addressed on the Alzheimer’s Association website, where they describe the 2001 study that showed a *reduced* risk of Alzheimer’s among individuals who had received flu, polio vaccine, tetanus, and diphtheria vaccines. In fact, the risk for developing Alzheimer’s for those who received the vaccines was approximately half the risk for those who do not. Real scientific evidence tells us that there is no causal link between the flu vaccine and Alzheimer’s disease.
Most importantly, the elderly are more at risk from the flu than younger individuals, so creating flu vaccine myths that create any doubt in this group to getting the vaccine is reckless and irresponsible.
Myth #4 – people pushing flu vaccinations are making billions of dollars each year
Even if this were true, it’s not a reason to avoid the flu vaccine. It’s a strawman argument of the highest order.
But if one is going to argue that Big Pharma is all about the money, then the real conspiracy should be that they would quit making vaccines. Why? Because Big Pharma makes much more money off of hospitals filled with people sick from the flu. Flu pandemic years are especially lucrative for Big Pharma, so extending this strawman argument to its logical conclusion would mean that Big Pharma would close down all of their flu vaccine manufacturing facilities.
Myth #5 – lack of real evidence that young children and elderly benefit
The author of this list of flu vaccine myths loves to cherry pick data to support their beliefs. That’s not how science works, but that’s not the point. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from flu season to flu season, and it also varies by age and other factors. But the effectiveness is not 0 – your regular flu shot is about 48% effective.
A meta-review of the flu vaccine studies found that, for children under 6 years old, one child would be prevented from contracting influenza for every six who were vaccinated with the live vaccine. For children over 6, one case of flu could be prevented for every 28 kids who received the inactivated vaccine. And again, unless you are a germ theory denier, it is infinitely better to avoid the flu. Flu complications for children are serious and can be deadly.
The CDC constantly monitors the effectiveness of the flu vaccine – in one study, researchers found the flu vaccine to be 66% effective in preventing the flu in children 6 months to 2 years old. In another study, only 4% of children under 2 who were vaccinated against the flu caught the disease. However, 12% of unvaccinated children caught it. That’s an impressive 66% reduction in risk.
Myth #6 – makes one more susceptible to pneumonia
Pure, GMO-free, all-natural, organic nonsense. There is simply no scientific evidence that the flu vaccines suppress the immune system or make one more susceptible to pneumonia or other contagious diseases. None.
However, there is plenty of evidence that catching the flu will lead to serious complications. The author of these myths must have gotten confused.
Myth #7 – vascular disorders
Here is one of those flu vaccine myths that seems to have been pulled right out of the air. In fact, there is boatloads of evidence that flu vaccines protect against cardiovascular events, such as heart attack. There is also evidence that flu vaccines improve cardiovascular outcomes.
Myth #8 – children under the age of 1 are at an increased risk
There is absolutely no evidence of this claim. In fact, if you look at Myth #5, you’ll see evidence that’s opposite of this claim.
Myth #9 – increased risk of narcolepsy
This is one of the flu vaccine myths that might actually have a small nugget of fact behind it. Narcolepsy a nervous system disorder that causes extreme sleepiness and attacks of daytime sleep. A study in Europe confirmed a causal link between one 2009 H1N1 flu vaccine called Pandemrix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline Europe, and the neurological disorder. However, and this is critical, it was only used in Europe, and not in the USA. Pandemrix was not used before 2009, nor since.
Moreover, a huge CDC study found no increased risk of narcolepsy from 2009 H1N1 flu vaccines available in the USA. One hypothesis for the European link to the disorder relates the adjuvant used in Europe. The vaccine is no longer used after the uncovering of this risk factor, and to claim that any flu vaccine is related to narcolepsy is ignorant at best.
Myth #10 – weakens immunological responses
There is just no evidence that supports this myth. It’s also related to myth #6, because repeating a myth in slightly different ways makes it appear that there are more issues. Does the author of this trope think we’re not very bright?
Myth #11 – causes Guillain-Barré syndrome
Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a serious autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. This conditions leads to nerve inflammation that may cause temporary paralysis. It can be caused by the flu, mononucleosis, and several other infectious diseases.
Like narcolepsy, this myth seems to be based on a partial fact that tells us nothing about today. It is based on the 1976 H1N1 flu vaccine (40 years ago!) which seemed to be linked to a higher risk of GBS in 1976. The risk was very small, about 10 additional cases of GBS per every 1 million people who received the vaccine. However, since 1976, GBS risk has been found to unrelated to vaccination status. In fact, some studies have found that the risk of GBS from flu is actually much higher than the risk of GBS from the flu vaccine.
And let’s remember that the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic killed around 280,000 (along with 12,000) people in the USA. The benefit to cost calculation favors getting vaccinated by a huge margin.
Factually, one study has shown that there is a risk of 1 additional GBS case per 1 million people vaccinated, compared with a risk of 17 additional cases of GBS per million influenza infections. The evidence just doesn’t show a link between the flu vaccine and GBS. But sure, the vaccine deniers will try to push this trope by using evidence from 40 years ago, while completely ignoring more recent, and much better, evidence from this century.
Myth #12 – flu vaccine causes miscarriages
I’m adding this myth because it has become a newly minted member of the flu vaccine myths database. It is based on an article which seemed to show a slight increase in risks of miscarriages in pregnant women after receiving the flu vaccine. This study immediately hit the rounds of the usual suspects in the anti-vaccine world.
I examined the details of the study, and so did a few others, and found it unconvincing in changing any of the recommendations for the flu vaccine in pregnant women. The conclusions were based on a tiny number of actual miscarriages – the differences in miscarriage rate between vaccinated and unvaccinated pregnant mothers could be as a result of random chance.
Moreover, there are several, larger studies that show no difference in miscarriage rates. Cherry-picking one weak study while ignoring a larger number of studies that contradict this one result is not proper science. It’s merely attempting to support a preconceived belief.
Is this study enough to overturn what we know about the flu vaccine during pregnancy? No.
Does this study say that the risk of miscarriage from vaccines is higher than the risk of miscarriage from catching the flu during pregnancy? Absolutely not.
Look, you can listen to these thoroughly debunked flu vaccine myths, or protect yourself and loved ones from the flu. Because the flu vaccine is relatively effective and very safe.
Editor’s note – this article was first published in November 2016. It has been updated for the 2017-18 flu season, while adding a new myth that we all know will become a thing.
- DiazGranados CA, Denis M, Plotkin S. Seasonal influenza vaccine efficacy and its determinants in children and non-elderly adults: a systematic review with meta-analyses of controlled trials. Vaccine. 2012 Dec 17;31(1):49-57. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2012.10.084. Epub 2012 Nov 7. Review. PubMed PMID: 23142300.
- Donahue JG, Kieke BA, King JP, DeStefano F, Mascola MA, Irving SA, Cheetham TC, Glanz JM, Jackson LA. Association of spontaneous abortion with receipt of inactivated influenza vaccine containing H1N1pdm09 in 2010–11 and 2011–12. Vaccine 25 Sep 2017;35(40):5314-5322. doi: j.vaccine.2017.06.069.
- Duffy J, Weintraub E, Vellozzi C, DeStefano F; Vaccine Safety Datalink. Narcolepsy and influenza A(H1N1) pandemic 2009 vaccination in the United States. Neurology. 2014 Nov 11;83(20):1823-30. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000987. Epub 2014 Oct 15. PubMed PMID: 25320099.
- Heinonen S, Silvennoinen H, Lehtinen P, Vainionpää R, Ziegler T, Heikkinen T. Effectiveness of inactivated influenza vaccine in children aged 9 months to 3 years: an observational cohort study. Lancet Infect Dis. 2011 Jan;11(1):23-9. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(10)70255-3. Epub 2010 Nov 22. PubMed PMID: 21106443.
- Hoberman A, Greenberg DP, Paradise JL, Rockette HE, Lave JR, Kearney DH, Colborn DK, Kurs-Lasky M, Haralam MA, Byers CJ, Zoffel LM, Fabian IA, Bernard BS, Kerr JD. Effectiveness of inactivated influenza vaccine in preventing acute otitis media in young children: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2003 Sep 24;290(12):1608-16. PubMed PMID: 14506120.
- Jefferson T, Rivetti A, Di Pietrantonj C, Demicheli V, Ferroni E. Vaccines for preventing influenza in healthy children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Aug 15;(8):CD004879. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004879.pub4. Review. PubMed PMID: 22895945.
- Kwong JC, Vasa PP, Campitelli MA, Hawken S, Wilson K, Rosella LC, Stukel TA, Crowcroft NS, McGeer AJ, Zinman L, Deeks SL. Risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome after seasonal influenza vaccination and influenza health-care encounters: a self-controlled study.Lancet Infect Dis. 2013 Sep;13(9):769-76. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(13)70104-X. Epub 2013 Jun 28. PubMed PMID: 23810252.
- Macintyre CR, Heywood AE, Kovoor P, Ridda I, Seale H, Tan T, Gao Z, Katelaris AL, Siu HW, Lo V, Lindley R, Dwyer DE. Ischaemic heart disease, influenza and influenza vaccination: a prospective case control study. Heart. 2013 Dec;99(24):1843-8. doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2013-304320. Epub 2013 Aug 21. PubMed PMID: 23966030; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3841753.
- Miller E, Andrews N, Stellitano L, Stowe J, Winstone AM, Shneerson J, Verity C. Risk of narcolepsy in children and young people receiving AS03 adjuvanted pandemic A/H1N1 2009 influenza vaccine: retrospective analysis. BMJ. 2013 Feb 26;346:f794. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f794. PubMed PMID: 23444425.
- Udell JA, Zawi R, Bhatt DL, Keshtkar-Jahromi M, Gaughran F, Phrommintikul A, Ciszewski A, Vakili H, Hoffman EB, Farkouh ME, Cannon CP. Association between influenza vaccination and cardiovascular outcomes in high-risk patients: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 2013 Oct 23;310(16):1711-20. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.279206. PubMed PMID: 24150467.
- Verreault R, Laurin D, Lindsay J, De Serres G. Past exposure to vaccines and subsequent risk of Alzheimer’s disease. CMAJ. 2001 Nov 27;165(11):1495-8. PubMed PMID: 11762573; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC81665.