Hidden among the media hysteria and panicking public reaction is one of the best ways to protect ourselves – choosing a healthy immune system
Each year people ask me if I’m getting a flu shot. Each year my answer is that I’m not. Should youget one? I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t know you. Neither do the politicians who make the recommendations for flu shots. This year’s hot item is the H1N1 (swine) flu. We’ve had bird flu, Hong Kong flu and many others that come and go, and have for centuries if not millions of years. In fact, each year there are 200 or more types of flu viruses around us.
I’ll address this issue in relation to the flu in general. Every year, and every different virus that comes along, varies a bit, of course. Not only that, but they can easily, and quickly change genetically into different viruses (the same reason bacteria become resistant to antibiotics). But basically, they’re all very similar in terms of how the body responses and resists these viruses. Some seem more serious in part because more people get sick, and because of media attention.
Avoiding the Flu
Why don’t I get a flu shot? The answer is simple: because I’m healthy. The best defense against the flu, or any other infection or illness, is having a healthy immune system. Being healthy not only significantly reduces your risk of getting the flu, but, if you do get sick it can reduce the severity. A healthy immune system can even save your life. Being healthy means you eat very well (all the time), exercise properly (not too much or too little), properly control stress (the physical, chemical and mental ones) and other factors. The ways to develop a healthy immune system is a big issue and not the reason for this article – I’ve written a whole book on the subject (In Fitness and In Health).
Another important habit is getting enough sun, our main source of vitamin D. This may be even more directly related to avoiding the flu. It’s well known that vitamin D is important for the immune system. As such, vitamin D can offer significant resistance against the flu. The vitamin D factor may answer one key question about flu seasons, which come at the time of year when vitamin D levels and sunshine is lowest and quickly disappear when longer sunny days return. In addition, low vitamin D levels may be closely associated with other respiratory infections, including tuberculosis.
In addition to improving overall health as a means of getting a better immune system, following some simple procedures can help you avoid infection. During flu season, avoid crowded public places, such as malls, stores, subways and parties – as much as possible. After being in public, wash your hands with hot water immediately when coming home or getting back to your workplace. When out in public, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as transmission of viruses often occurs from your hands. If you do get sick, stay home and rest. This not only helps recovery but it will help avoid infecting others. If your illness is not an emergency, don’t go to the hospital ER – it’s an easy place to get infected. By adhering to these simple habits, you can reduce the spread of flu viruses. While these recommendations are implemented in other countries, the US is still relying on a vaccine. And, very few ever discuss the notion that a healthier immune system prevents infection better than anything.
Natural vs. Artificial Immunity
A flu shot does not make you healthy. Too many people are confused about this issue. It provides you with artificial immunity. Even if this protects you against a particular strain of flu, there may be another 200 viruses out there during any given flu season which you won’t be protected against.
The best defense is your body’s natural immunity. In some cases, one way of knowing whether your immune system is healthy in relation to a particular infectious illness is to perform a blood test. Normally, if we are exposed to a virus (or bacteria), our body makes substances called antibodies. These are specific for each potentially infectious condition we’re exposed to. The presence of these antibodies infers we have natural immunity against that virus or bacteria. If this test indicates natural immunity, then artificial immunity (through a flu shot) would probably not help an already healthy immune system. But if you don’t show natural immunity because your blood test does not show the presence of antibodies, it may mean you probably were never exposed, you lost your natural immunity or you don’t have it. You still may have a healthy immune system and therefore able to avoid getting sick if exposed to a virus.
A flu shot, however, can sometimes hurt a healthy immune system. This occurs when mercury-based chemical preservatives are used in the vaccine.
If you are at high risk, have poor immune function and don’t have natural immunity, a vaccine against a particular virus might be a consideration because it would at least provide you with artificial immunity. But that’s assuming the theory that artificial immunity against the flu means you’re more protected. All the experts don’t agree on this notion.
Dr. Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration, an international not-for-profit network aimed at promoting evidence-based health care, has seen all the research and concludes that the supposed benefits to the flu vaccine are not justified. Jefferson, an expert in this field who has been published in the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and other scientific journals, reviewed all the studies on flu vaccines and concluded that the supposed benefits are wildly overestimated.
Who’s at Risk?
In most cases, those at highest risk are those who are the least healthy. This includes people with a history of frequent colds, infections, allergies, asthma and other conditions associated with reduced immune function. Those with chronic illnesses, such as inflammatory conditions associated with arthritis or colitis, heart disease or cancer are at higher risk. And, those who are generally run down and just don’t feel well all the time. As most of these conditions are preventable, it means the individual has not chosen a healthy path. For older people, age does not automatically place you at risk – being older and being unhealthy does.
Oddly enough, it’s those who are most healthy who are the ones most likely to choose to get vaccinated. This makes studying the benefits of the vaccine more subjective because those who need it most – the poor, and those with other illnesses – get immunized less often.
An exception would be babies, whose immune systems have not fully developed yet. While most of them have natural immunity against most childhood diseases, not so for certain strains of flu. In the case of the swine flu, the last time it appeared was in 1957. So those individuals who were alive then may have antibodies against this flu today.
Making the choice to get a flu shot is your choice – not the government’s or your insurance company, and it should be based on your doctor’s input following a proper history and exam, and considering your risk of infection and potential exposure to infected individuals. No one should be required – forced – to have a flu shot (something that is being done with health care workers in New York).
Using common sense and proper health care advice is also important. If you’re getting a flu shot because CNN recommends it, you’re acting emotionally and getting caught up in all the media hysteria. Or if you’re getting a flu shot because all your friends are too, this is a poor way to choose. Making a decision about an important health factor should be based on rational thinking, and with the input from an objective health care practitioner. Likewise, if your doctor is recommending everyone get a flu shot, that’s not objective either.
Another important factor to consider is ethics. As a doctor, I would not routinely recommend any specific treatment for an entire population. Treating people as individuals is the best approach – that’s not some philosophy, but common sense. A “shotgun” approach lowers the treatment standard for all patients involved. In this scenario, some people would benefit from the treatment, some would not respond, and others would get adverse side effects.
After weighing the risks, and you decide to get a flu shot, consider that some are available without mercury preservatives that have caused so many side effects. Tell your health care professional you want to avoid the ones with mercury. Like other products, the packaging lists the mercury preservative.
More importantly, consider that by getting a flu shot you may not be giving your body the best option. You’re choosing artificial immunity over natural immunity – and reactive care rather than proactive. Having a naturally healthy immune system offers more than just reducing your risk of the flu. It helps prevent and postpone many illnesses, from cancer and heart disease to most chronic conditions. It adds quality of life to the end of your life. Artificial immunity can’t do that.
My recommendations? Decide you’re going to be proactive with your health – rather than reactive to the next flu that comes along – by starting to improve the health of your immune system now; by eating well all the time, getting adequate vitamin D from the sun and other factors that improve not just immune function but overall health as well. Vaccines clearly give many people a false sense of security. And, unfortunately for too many people, it’s easier to get a shot than take care of their health.