Having chosen a path embracing non-Western approaches to health, it surprises some to learn that I have chosen to take the flu vaccine. Because this has elicited such a variety of responses, I would like to share some of the reasons why I chose to do so.
First, you have to understand where I am coming from. Being a board-certified Preventive Medicine Specialist with a master’s degree in public health, I wear my seatbelt in the car, I put on my helmet when I ride my bike, I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, I don’t smoke, I exercise, I get routine preventive screenings, and I get vaccines for preventable illnesses to which I think I might be susceptible. Having looked at the evidence for vaccine safety and efficacy, I believe in the science behind it.
Although the influenza vaccine that I took this year only protects against the four most likely strains to be around this season, I’ve taken that protection against those strains and continue to do my other health maintenance practices (good nutrition, adequate sleep, hand washing, immune-supporting supplements) to help my immune system fight all of the other viruses that will be lurking around this season.
For as long as I can remember, I have taken the flu vaccine every year. I don’t believe that there is any harm (for me) in taking the preservative-free version of the flu vaccine (preservative-free means that it contains no thimerosal, which is a mercury compound). I am aware of potential risks of receiving a vaccine and recognize that most things in life are not risk-free. I do believe that there are different risks for individuals and so I also think that each person must make their own choice about their level of comfort with those risks.
Influenza: From Sniffles to Serious
Influenza is a common disease and can present in many different ways. Having trained in a hospital setting, I have witnessed the effects of the flu beyond the aching, fever, and stuffy nose symptoms that are so familiar. Influenza can be serious with potentially fatal complications, and while many of the complications of influenza occur in people with weakened immune systems or other chronic illnesses, another serious issue can result from an overly responsive immune system in healthy young people.
A healthy immune system creates cytokines to fight the flu virus by causing inflammation that destroys the virus but also can destroy healthy cells, thus causing the symptoms of fever, achiness, etc. However, an over-reactive immune response can create a cytokine storm that floods the body and cause damage, particularly in the lungs. This is what caused a lot of deaths in young and healthy people in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. This is not just sniffles and sneezes and missed work, this is potentially serious.
Not only do I want to prevent myself from getting sick, but I also have an obligation as a health care worker to prevent the spread of illness to others. Seeing patients who are potentially ill and traveling from around the world, I’m in a high-exposure profession. And then there are my kids. Not only do I not want to get them sick, but these wonderful youngsters are also like walking petri dishes who will certainly bring home dozens of viruses from school this year. Perhaps my approach would be different if I could minimize or avoid exposure to potentially sick people. But as my life is now, I will take many different precautions to keep from spreading germs.
Integration and Balancing Risks and Benefits
As a society, I believe we have been lulled into feeling safe against some serious vaccine-preventable illnesses. I remember an attending physician of mine from pediatrics who had been in practice for over forty years and had seen many children die from Haemophilus influenza. Having trained after the initiation of standard pediatric vaccination against this illness, it is only through his history that I understood the gravity of this disease and the advantages of having the vaccine.
In 1997 Dr. Andrew Weil was quoted in an article as saying, “The debate about immunization could only be going on in a country where the people are mostly immunized. If people in this country lived with these diseases, you wouldn’t hear them questioning immunization.”
More than fifteen years later, we are seeing some of these illnesses return in outbreaks in unprotected populations. When the severities of the consequences are witnessed, perhaps different choices will be made.
The discussion about pediatric scheduled vaccinations is much larger, but I think the approach is the same. We should look at each treatment, Western or otherwise, for the individual and weigh the risks and benefits. What is Western and “scientific” is not always harmful. What is “natural” is not always safe. When we know better, we do better. Next year when I evaluate the situation, if I find a good reason to not get a flu vaccine, I will stop taking it. But until then I am going to continue to practice preventive medicine in the best way that I know, integrating what I consider the best of all of the healing modalities available to us in this time and choosing the most appropriate option for the individual.
Here are some other tips to help keep us healthy through the winter season.
Reduce the spread of germs by doing the following:
• Wash your hands frequently.
• Don’t touch your face with your hands.
• Sneeze or cough into your elbow.
Get a good night’s sleep.
Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, including some immune supporting foods such as:
• Ginger, turmeric, garlic and onions
• Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, enoki)
• Astragalus root (cook with it, take it as a tea or in a broth)
• Vitamin C rich foods (citrus, kiwi, broccoli)
• Tea (green, black, white, oolong)
Consider nutritional supplements to support the immune system.
• Vitamins A, C, D, and E and zinc are important for immune support.
• Medicinal mushrooms (reishi, cordyceps, and others)
• Echinacea purpurea can be taken as a preventive and then in increased dose if symptoms develop.
Practice stress-reducing techniques regularly such as meditation, yoga, relaxed breathing, and exercise. Get a massage and laugh often.