Musings on the Flu Vaccine

Jonah Lusis

So, a propos of flu season, I thought I’d opine on the flu vaccine.

As a naturopathic doctor, the expectation is likely that I’m against it, but I’m neutral to it.

What had come to my attention, and what I was thinking of commenting on, was Shoppers Drug Marts’ aggressive promotion of the flu vaccine in the new year, in spite of the fact that the CDC had already determined this years’ vaccine is poorly matched (it’s estimated to be only 14% effective in persons over 50 years of age, the group most targeted in flu vaccine advertising), and that with a two week period required to develop antibodies, a person receiving the vaccine in mid-January will not have developed flu protection until little of the flu season remains.

In the course of looking up facts and numbers to round out my griping, I stumbled across this more interesting article on flu statistics.

The article questions whether or not the flu is actually the public health threat that results in much fear-based advertising and government pronouncing, moral judgment of those choosing not to use the vaccine and billions of dollars in annual government spending.

Essentially, the article brings to our attention that the claim that 2’000 to 8’000 deaths attributed to flu annually in Canada likely over-estimates, possibly greatly, the health impact of the flu.

Flu death figures are not arrived at by counting confirmed flu cases that ended in patient death (the testing required for this is not practical, and would cost a fortune).

Estimates are arrived at by using computer models. Assumptions are created (e.g., pneumonia deaths occurring in the winter months are caused by flu), and a computer will generate a number based on the assumptions. Different assumptions generate different numbers. Prior to 2003, Health Canada used different assumptions in their models, and the models predicted 500 to 1’500 flu-related deaths annually.

So, how dangerous is the flu really? The H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009 prompted close scrutiny of flu cases, widespread laboratory testing and the implementation of a national reporting program. In other words, implementation of the ideal flu-death counting system described above. That year, the final number of deaths attributed to the flu was 428.

If 428 is a more accurate prediction of how many Canadians will die of the flu, greater than 99.999% of Canadians will survive the flu each season. Is this worth the anxiety, hostility and dollar cost it results in each year?

Addendum: I happened upon this article written by a past chief medical officer for Ontario, an infectious disease specialist, questioning the value of the flu vaccine for different reasons (hint: the best case scenario for use of this years’ flu vaccine was vaccination of 50-100 persons to prevent a single case of flu).

Jonah Lusis, ND


Posted: 2015 February 26