Time is running out, better get your flu shot. That's what news agencies around the country are urging Americans to do. Roll up their sleeves, despite the fact it's too late to really develop adequate antibody defense, and get jabbed with a largely ineffective and somewhat problematic flu vaccine.
While the Centers for Disease Control says the flu strikes 5-to-20% of the population in any given year, the flu is only evident in 0.8 to 1.3% of the blood samples taken from virally-infected individuals so far this year. [Centers Disease Control]
Public health authorities appear dumbfounded. "It is a very slow season, locally, statewide, and nationally," said Caroline Johnson, director of disease control for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. "Everything seems to be much lower than usual." [Philly.com]
Very few pediatric deaths have been reported. Children and senior adults are the most vulnerable to life-threatening bouts of the flu.
The number of annual flu deaths is overstated. Health authorities claim over a 30-year period 3,000 to 49,000 Americans die of the flu annually. [Centers for Disease Control] This year doesn't even come close to those numbers. Just what to do now with over 170 million doses of flu vaccine?
Why such a low rate of flu infection this year?
Apparently public health authorities missed the fact this flu season, which usually runs from October through May and peaks in December and January, was diminished by an uncommon warm spell.
The heat spell was experienced as far north as Alaska with sled dog races there moved to more northern climates due to unseasonable weather. [Alaska Dispatch News Jan 5, 2016] How did public health authorities not notice this major continental weather shift?
Retailers didn't miss this fact. Sale of coats and sweaters were steeply down this holiday season to the point where some major retailers report major losses and resultant employee layoffs. [LA Times Jan 8, 2016] But were public health authorities avoiding the obvious, the fact there were more clear sunny days, and presumably higher natural vitamin D levels, which boosted immunity and held influenza viruses at bay.
Unfortunately, more conclusive data to prove this point isn't available as historical UV-Index data is not yet available for 2015. (UV rays are required to produce natural vitamin D in the skin.) However, solar ultraviolet radiation is now believed to play a role in the seasonal occurrence of influenza pandemics. [Photochemistry Photobiology 2007]
The year 2015 was the second warmest year on record with unprecedented warmth near the end of the year, particularly in Eastern states. [National Centers for Environmental Information 2015] In fact, 2015 was the warmest year on record worldwide. [USA Today] A report in the New York Post called it "the East Coast's Absurdly Warm Weather," but health authorities have apparently overlooked or don't want to factor the weather in flu prognostications. [Huffington Post]
To make up for the public's lackluster interest in getting a flu shot this season, which no longer requires a doctor's office visit, major pharmacy chains now offer in-store flu shots and free vouchers are being distributed. [Minden Press Herald, Louisiana Jan 7, 2016] While drug chains offer flu shots, in many instances they are not covered by insurance. [Slate.com] So the shot is likely to cost $40-55 out of pocket.
In the past the US government issued purchase orders for flu vaccine and if they went unused, public health agencies paid up. But now flu vaccines are foisted off on retailers who can only get partial refunds for unused product. [Johns Hopkins Univ]
But leave it to good old American ingenuity. The dismal response to efforts to get Americans vaccinated against the flu this year prompted UberHealth to issue a 1-day offer to send a vaccine nurse to people's homes in 35 US cities. The nurse can administer up to 10 flu shots for $10 each. [Time Magazine]
More eyebrow-raising flu vaccine reports
The weather and the almost non-existent flu season has been punctuated with even more eyebrow-raising news stories:
Statin cholesterol-lowering drugs used by an estimated 25 million Americans were found to interfere with flu shots. Statin drug users were found to produce 30% to 60% fewer antibodies to influenza viruses. [Time Magazine Oct 29, 2015; Journal Infectious Diseases Oct 28, 2015]
Scientists now admit there is a fatal flaw in flu vaccines. The dreaded H3N2 flu virus is only vulnerable to antibodies produced by flu shots 38% of the time. [com] News reporters are painting this flu vaccine defect a bit rosier than the science. One study shows the flu vaccine is only effective in 11% of adults over age 65. [Journal Infectious Diseases May 15, 2015]
The FDA, obviously reeling from criticism of toxic adjuvants added to vaccines (like mercury/thimerosal) to provoke a stronger immune response, has approved squalene, an oily nutrient made naturally by the liver and found in olive oil. [com Nov 30, 2015; WebMD Nov 25, 2015] In one study squalene raised adequate antibody response from 2% to 84%. [Journal American Medical Assn. July 21, 2015]
The 2009 report that more than 1300 people who received a flu vaccine developed narcolepsy (overpowering daytime sleepiness) was finally acknowledged this year by its manufacturer to trigger antibodies that bind to receptors on the surface of brain cells that regulate sleepiness. [Science Magazine July 1, 2015]
Trying to take the negative edge off of news stories that question the effectiveness of flu vaccines against rapidly mutating strains of the virus, researchers report they are inching closer to a universal flu vaccine, one that works for all strains. But the report is very preliminary. [LA Times Aug 25, 2015]
Two inoculations are sometimes required to elevate antibodies in older adults. A high-dose flu vaccine has been developed and safely tested in humans that would only require one injection. [Vaccine Dec 22, 2015]
The reduced immune response to vaccines among obese individuals is now being studied and may help explain the reported ineffectiveness of many vaccines. [European Journal Clinical Microbiology Infectious Disease Dec 30, 2015]
An analysis involving four studies showed that flu vaccination reduces risk for cardiovascular mortality by 55%. [Acta Med Portugal 2015] However, a study of 134,101 US adults over age 65, 68.9% who were vaccinated for the flu, were more likely to be non-smokers which may explain this decreased risk in cardiovascular mortality. [Preventive Medicine May 2012]
Office workers fired from a social service agency for refusing to get a flu shot have filed a suit against their employer, claiming the requirement is discriminatory and unconstitutional. The case is in litigation. [com Dec 21, 2015]