Forget the Vitamins, Get a Flu Shot

Without a shot, you can still get the flu no matter how healthy you are.
Without a shot, you can still get the flu no matter how healthy you are.Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

One online article starts with this disarming and self-deprecating disclaimer: "I'm not a chemist, a physician or someone with an advanced degree in biology." The Healthy-Holistic-Living.com writer (not doctor) then launches a nearly 3,000 word diatribe against one of the most sinful things someone could put into his or her body: A flu shot.

Healthy-Holistic-Living.com is easy enough to write off as a crackpot health site. Its anti-pharma, anti-CDC archives are filled with titles like, "I Woke Up This Morning With Pain in my Hands and Toes All Because I Was Missing This High-Performance Vitamin," and "How to Supercharge Your Body with Vitamin D to Relieve Asthma by 70 Percent."

Unfortunately, there are also legitimate health and medicine experts offering vitamins in the place of a vaccine as flu prevention. David Williams, a doctor of chiropractic and author of Library of Medical Lies, comes out strongly anti-vaccine, while offering eight supplements to boost your immune system. There's also Phil Maffetone, another doctor of chiropractic, who believes a healthy diet with exercise and loads of vitamin D is the best flu prevention. Those are excellent lifestyle goals that will support a health immune system, but they're no guarantee. "Anyone, even super-healthy adults, can get the flu," says Susan Donelan, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Stony Brook University Hospital. 

These misguided voices are adding up. Last year, only 43.6 percent of American adults got the flu shot. However, according to 2013 data from Gallup, 50 percent of us regularly take some sort of vitamin or supplement. It's an odd dichotomy, considering a meta-analysis of 31 studies in The Lancet showed the flu shot gave "significant protection" against the virus. Meanwhile, there's almost no research demonstrating the efficacy of vitamins in preventing the spread of influenza (although some studies show probiotics or vitamin D could lower fevers and reduce some symptoms, but not avoid it all together). What's worse, the loose regulations governing supplements mean you could make yourself sick on accident.

"I think that vitamins sound more natural," says William Schaffner, M.D., the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. But sounding natural and being natural are two different things. The FDA does not regulate the supplement industry. After Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, anything sold as a dietary supplement was considered to be safe until proven otherwise. Also, no approval is needed before a product can be marketed to the public.

This lack of oversight has led to a reckless industry. According to information provided by Aegis Sciences Corporation, a company that screens supplements for banned substances, the FDA has recalled 260 supplements since November 2013. One of the worst of these recalls, diet pill OxyElite Pro, caused severe hepatitis and liver failure in people that took it. Three people required liver transplants and 47 were hospitalized.  

And then there's the problem of the pills not actually containing what they claim. In February 2015, The New York Times reported on the Attorney General of New York's investigation into several brand name supplements. The investigation found often the supplements contained none of the ingredients listed on the label and instead were some sort of combination of houseplants, powdered rice and beans, wheat and other useless fillers.   

Recently there have been calls to reform the vitamin and supplement industry. If the political leadership needs a model to base it off, perhaps it should look toward the flu vaccine manufacturing process. "It's highly regulated. Manufacturers have to go through a lot of hoops to be able to produce the vaccine," says John Quarles, PhD, a professor of immunology at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.

"Manufacturers must be open to regular inspection and assessment by our agencies," adds Donelan. "[Each year] the CDC and members of the American College of Physicians take great time and deliberation before making recommendations on what should be in the shot."

The flu shot has had only one recall. "It wasn't recalled because of anything dangerous," says Dr. Quarles. "It was recalled because there were not high enough concentrations of the proteins [the antigens that are killed and used to make the vaccine] in it to make it effective." The number of recalls the supplement industry has had in that same timeframe? Two hundred and sixty. 

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