Debunking flu vaccine myths – it’s that time again

As we enter the 2021-2022 flu season in the Northern Hemisphere, your best weapon to avoid the flu is to ignore the myths and get the seasonal flu vaccine. Despite the known overall safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccine, the anti-vaccination cult is pushing their ignorant nonsense all over social media, especially Facebook.

Despite all the good reasons to get the vaccine, the CDC estimated that the flu vaccine uptake in the USA in 2020-21 was around 59.0%. This is well below the 80-90% uptake required for herd immunity against the flu.

There are some concerns that because all the measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, that caused the 2020-21 flu season to be almost non-existent, may make the population even more susceptible to the flu during the 2021-22 season.

Thus, it may be more important this year than many others to get the flu vaccine. And for me to debunk the noxious flu vaccine myths.

flu vaccine myths
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 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 deniers. If you haven’t read that article, be prepared to be overwhelmed with hysterical snark.

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 anti-vaccine 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 bovine fecal material. 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 its 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,” which is caused by the flu vaccine inducing an immune response. It is temporary and a whole bunch less serious than actually getting the flu.

I don’t think this is the Mercury that the anti-vaxxers hate. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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 from 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 another 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.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

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 seem to have been pulled right out of the air. In fact, there are boatloads of evidence that flu vaccines protect against cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks. 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 the opposite of this claim.

Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash

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 is 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 to 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 condition leads to nerve inflammation that may cause temporary paralysis. It can be caused by 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 (45 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 be 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 deaths worldwide (along with about 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 that the flu vaccine caused a slight increase in miscarriages. 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.

Summary

Look, you can listen to these thoroughly debunked flu vaccine myths, or protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu. Because the flu vaccine is relatively effective and very safe.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!