Swine Flu, Nothing Has Changed
Nothing has really changed concerning the swine flu since I last wrote about it mid-summer. So why another newsletter? Because although the swine flu is progressing much as I predicted many months ago, the environment in which it is progressing has changed considerably. Whereas fear of the swine flu was the dominant issue in the spring and early summer, fear of government response to swine flu is now the dominant issue. And much of this can be attributed to exaggerations and misstatements on all sides. Doctors justifiably complain about many of the conspiracy theories coming from the natural health community, while at the same time making equally absurd pronouncements about the efficacy of the vaccine itself and the dangers of not getting it. The bottom line is that the public is concerned, confused, and even afraid.
In today's natural health newsletter, I'm going to take these issues on one at a time and try and resolve the confusion. So without further ado:
Is the swine flu vaccine safe?
This is probably the number one concern on the internet today. (It may not actually be the most important question, but it certainly is the dominant one.) In fact, a recently released ABC News-Washington Post Poll found that nearly half of all parents polled expressed concerns about the swine flu vaccine's safety and said they were unlikely to get their children vaccinated. And an even more astounding 66 percent of all adults indicated they were not planning to get vaccinated themselves.
Needless to say, this has government spokespeople and leaders of the medical community up in arms. According to them, the swine flu vaccine is "perfectly" safe and thoroughly tested. Or to quote Kenneth Alexander, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Chicago, "We've been baking this bread for 60 years, and we're pretty good at it, buddy." And Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has "unconditionally" vouched for the safety of the vaccine. Keep in mind that the definition of "unconditionally" means no ifs, ands, or buts. There are no exceptions. The swine flu vaccine is safe for every single person in the world to take. Words matter, and that's what that word means.
So who's right? The glib answer would be to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but that's not accurate. In fact, the truth is highly nuanced and depends to a large degree on how you ask the question and how you define safe.
First of all, let's throw the "official" statement that the swine flu vaccine is "perfectly safe" on the trash heap where it belongs. It is not perfectly safe. Nothing is perfectly safe. Anything that has contact with the human body, either internally or externally can potentially produce a negative reaction. Screen through enough people and you will eventually find someone allergic to any food or herb you survey for. In fact, look long enough, and you'll find people allergic to things you would think you cannot even live without, such as sunlight and water. To cut to the chase, anyone who says the vaccine is perfectly safe is lying -- and therefore has a credibility problem from the get-go. Let me repeat that. Anyone who says the swine flu vaccine is "perfectly" safe is lying!
Okay, but if all we're talking about here is a temporary itch or rash in exchange for saving your life, that's not a big deal, is it? If that's all we were talking about, that would be true. But it's not. For a small percentage of people, that reaction can be permanent, life-altering, or even fatal.
That's frightening, but what percentage of people have this kind of reaction? And the answer, of course, is that it's very low. According to those few experts who acknowledge the potential in the first place, we're talking one in a million. Of course, that number is not based on any actual data. It's a pull it out of your butt number. But let's accept it for a moment as being close to true. Given the fact that they're looking to inoculate 195 million Americans, that means we're looking at 195 people potentially ending up like Desiree Jennings.
195 lives destroyed hardly looks "unconditional." But, if it saves tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people from dying, isn't that a fair trade off? And that's just in the United States. Extrapolate those numbers worldwide, and the number of potential lives saved is monumental. And yes, based on those numbers and stated in those terms, it probably is a fair trade-off…if the swine flu vaccine actually worked. (And don't forget, if you extrapolate the numbers worldwide in considering the number of lives saved, you also have to extrapolate them worldwide to consider the total number who might be harmed or killed.)
The bottom line is that the swine flu vaccine is not the worldwide killer that has been portrayed on many websites, but it is far from "perfectly" safe -- particularly if you're the one who has a negative reaction.
Is the swine flu vaccine effective?
Several weeks ago, Dr. Nancy Snyderman was talking on TV in the background while I was exercising (stretching, if you're interested), when suddenly I heard her say something that was so outrageous that it caused me to pull up short and strain a groin muscle -- an injury that took almost 10 days to heal, mind you. What did she say that was so outrageous? She was talking dismissively of those who questioned the sanctity of the swine flu shot and in the middle of her tirade, pronounced that flu shots were 98 percent effective. 98 percent??!!! What planet did that come from? Even the most optimistic medical projections cite a range of effectiveness that runs from 30-90%. And yet Dr. Nancy had claimed an absurd, flat out 98 percent. It appears that if you're a doctor, you don't need science on your side. If it comes from your mouth, it must be true -- despite all facts to the contrary. So what is the truth about the effectiveness of flu vaccines?
Well, in order to answer that question, we first have to separate the swine flu vaccine from your everyday seasonal flu vaccine. They are different in one important aspect -- one that actually benefits the swine flu vaccine. But first, we need to examine the regular seasonal flu shot.
According to the CDC, in studies of the seasonal flu shot, when the "match" between vaccine viruses and circulating viruses is close (an uncommon occurrence, mind you), the vaccine has been shown to be beneficial in about 70%-90% of healthy persons younger than age 65. Among elderly persons living outside chronic-care facilities (such as nursing homes) and those persons with long-term (chronic) health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), the flu shot has been shown to be between 30% and 70% effective in preventing hospitalization for pneumonia and influenza. Among elderly nursing home residents, the flu shot has been shown to be most effective in preventing severe illness, secondary complications, and deaths related to the flu. In this population, the shot has been shown to be between 50% and 60% effective in preventing hospitalization or pneumonia and 80% effective in preventing death from the flu.
But what about opposing viewpoints, such as expressed by the CDC. Wait a second; did I just say that the CDC holds a position that argues against itself? Welcome to the world of vaccines, medicine, and science! In fact, the CDC has said that indications are you'll get just as sick (with colds, flu, or flu-like illnesses) whether or not you get vaccinated. Hmm, that's certainly a head scratcher, isn't it?
Even better, according to new research released this year, children who get the flu vaccine have three times the risk of hospitalization for flu. And that study is hardly isolated. Other studies have shown that flu vaccines can actually triple the number of hospital visits for young asthmatics. And a study cited in the Cochrane Review found that "in children under two years old, inactivated vaccines had the same effectiveness as a placebo."
And finally, the main cohort study that most doctors reference when citing the effectiveness of the flu vaccine (Nancy Snyderman included) is absurd at face value. If actually taken at face value, it seems that the flu vaccine not only protects you from the flu, but from getting hit by lightning or falling off a ladder. And the numbers are identical both in flu season…and out of it. In other words, the numbers are nonsensical.
The bottom line is that there is little credible evidence that the flu vaccine provides any benefit and a great deal of scientific evidence that suggests it does not. And at best, it does not lessen your chances of getting the flu despite what most people believe. It merely lessens your symptoms if you do get it. And that's only if the most favorable estimates turn out to be true.
All in all, there is little to suggest significant benefit from the flu vaccine -- swine flu or otherwise. And if you're under two, it's pretty much a guaranteed placebo. Now, considering its lack of efficacy, it's not such an easy call when you weigh the minimal benefits against the risk. It's still your call, but it's hardly a slam dunk on either side of the equation. Now, to be fair, the swine flu vaccine does have one theoretical advantage over the regular flu vaccine: there's no guesswork as to what strain of flu it's targeted for. There's no hit or miss involved as with the seasonal flu vaccine. But, on the other hand, all of the studies that show how ineffective the regular flu vaccine actually is are based on those vaccines that matched the season's flu virus, and there's no reason to believe the swine flu vaccine is any different.
Is swine flu itself part of a government conspiracy?
This is one of my favorite issues. In August, when I addressed this issue, the primary theory was that the swine flu had been deliberately created and unleashed by malevolent governments and scientists to "depopulate" the world. Now that the most dire predictions have fizzled (as I predicted), these same prophets of doom have done a 180. Now the conspiracy is that the ineffectiveness of the swine flu is deliberate and represents a government conspiracy to trick the public into spending billions of dollars for unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous vaccines.
And maybe the most amazing thing of all is that people seem to have no problem in making that 180 degree switch along with their prophets and getting all excited by a diametrically opposed theory.
Look, does money play a role in what's going on? You bet your bippy it does! I covered that last May when exploring several money driven scenarios including the Cheney/Rumsfeld connection in the government's purchase of vast quantities of Tamiflu in response to the potential avian flu epidemic. But ultimately, I believe that most of what you are seeing is the result of politics -- of parties in power looking to cover their butts and fend off their critics. For example, much of what we are seeing from the Obama administration in terms of its swine flu vaccination policy is a direct attempt to fend off Republican criticism. Search the internet on the words "swine flu Obama's Katrina" and you'll get a sense of why the politicians in office are working so hard to make it look like they're doing something, anything (even if it is meaningless and counterproductive) so as not to look like they're doing nothing. Then again, this is not the first attempt to find Obama's Katrina. Earlier this year, pundits were trying to tag the General Motors bailout as "Obama's Katrina." It is no coincidence, then, that Obama declared a national swine flu emergency in October, even as the pandemic was turning out to be a whole lot less frightening than originally projected. No conspiracy here -- just a desire not to be Katrina-ized by the opposition.
And in fact, they are now getting slammed for not having enough swine flu vaccine available this fall -- an issue we will now explore.
Why are we running behind with swine flu vaccine?
Which brings us to the next question: why are we running behind schedule with production of the swine flu vaccine? Is this an example of typical government failure as many seem to be saying?
Stuff and nonsense! Piffle and the like! There's no failure here. I stated back in August that it was most unlikely that the H1N1 vaccine would be available in sufficient amounts by October. Back then I said that December or January was a more likely date for ample supplies to start appearing. Again, there is no failure here -- just the simple reality of putting together a flu vaccine faster than has ever been done before and manufacturing it in quantities never seen before. Holding governments accountable for not hitting impossible targets (even if goaded into promising those targets) is a purely political maneuver. People who now want to hold any government accountable for the "delay" should, as the saying goes, "get a life." There is no delay -- merely a simple, predictable (I predicted it last summer) reality.
But again, this all assumes that you believe there's actually any real value to the swine flu vaccine -- hardly the cut and dried issue that many authorities would have you believe, as we've already discussed.
Who is getting sick from the swine flu and why?
News reports have carried numerous stories that the swine flu is not behaving like regular seasonal flu. Normally, the most vulnerable people when it comes to regular flus are the very old and the very young. Swine flu is not behaving that way. In fact, an analysis of the sickest swine flu patients suggests that relatively healthy adolescents and young adults are among the most likely to get very sick after an H1N1 infection. The one other group that appears to be particularly vulnerable is pregnant women -- although there is some question about that, as we will discuss in a moment. On the other hand, the very old and the very young seem to be at significantly reduced risk. In fact, this is a pattern similar to that seen in the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Amazingly, even with all the research produced by the "brethren" on this matter, most doctors entirely misunderstand what's going on here. For example, most sites explain the problem as a weakened immune system leading to complications. And yes, if you have AIDS or significant asthma or a co-occurring infection such as staphylococcus aureus (which one third of all people carry), you will have more problems. But that does not explain why healthy young adults are at more risk, and despite what some websites claim, pregnant women do not have weakened immune systems -- in fact, just the opposite...at least in one crucial area.
Medical studies have shown that when pregnant, women actually experience a sharp uptick in immune function, including an increase in monocytes and neutrophils -- white blood cells that destroy foreign particles such as bacteria and tissue debris. These immune cells are not only more numerous in pregnant women, but are also far more active than usual, releasing more of the specialized chemical markers that determine interactions among immune cells and between immune cells and the walls of blood vessels. And as Hamlet would say, "Ay, there's the rub -- those specialized chemical markers." We're talking about chemokines and cytokines. As other studies have shown, pregnant women experience an increased expression of chemokines and cytokines, which brings up the issue of cytokine storms. (Note: it has been suggested by some that pregnancy is not the deciding factor in those pregnant women who have ended up in hospitals with H1N1 -- but rather that obesity is the issue since a majority of those women have also been obese. And that might be true. However, it should also be noted that obesity raises cytokine levels in premenopausal women, which would give pregnant obese women a double whammy -- bringing us once again back to the issue of cytokine storms.)
The problem is that in heightened immune systems with elevated levels of cytokines, the introduction of a virus can goad the immune system to over respond. This causes immune cells to rush to the lungs to attack the virus -- but at levels and activity so high that the immune cells actually destroy lung tissue in the process, leading to the respiratory problems we are seeing with swine flu. This is called a cytokine storm, something I've talked about in numerous newsletters.
But it needs to be understood that just as in weather, there are many different degrees of storms (categories 1-5, if you will). A storm can be characterized by heavy rain and moderate wind that comes and goes quickly, causing little damage. Or it can be a hurricane that destroys entire towns and kills hundreds. They are, however, both storms. And when it comes to cytokine storms, we can see that range of intensity. At the top level, we see the 1918 pandemic that killed large swaths of the world's population because the cytokine storm it produced was so intense. Avian flu likewise produced a similarly intense storm that caused a mortality rate approaching 68% at its peak. (Fortunately, it didn't spread easily from human to human.) And then there's H1N1. It too causes a cytokine storm, but at the low end of the scale. The net result is that we're seeing a lot of people affected badly enough that they're going to the hospital, but not so badly that thousands are dying. In fact, as of about a month ago, the CDC was projecting that about 22 million Americans had been infected, with only 98,000 hospitalized, and maybe 6,100 dead.
Then again, those numbers are purely guesswork, and have a huge political justification behind them. Last month CBS news reported that the CDC's numbers were significantly overestimated.
On a final note, the reason the very old and very young are less affected by cytokine storms is that their immune systems are less active by definition. In the elderly, their immune systems have been worn down by time and lifestyle. In the very young (below age two), their immune systems are not yet fully developed. (Incidentally, that's the reason that flu vaccines tend to be so ineffective in toddlers. Their immune systems are not developed enough to respond strongly to the virus proteins in the vaccine.) One other edge the elderly have when it comes to swine flu is that it seems that anyone over 50 likely has some resistance to the swine based on exposure to "related" flus many years ago.
What to do about the swine flu
As I predicted, months ago, unless the virus mutated, this was not going to be the black plague. Deaths would be far less than originally predicted by health authorities and even some other natural health sites. We would not see carts piled high with bodies and virally infected flesh eating zombies roaming the streets. (In fact, this metaphor proved so popular several other sites -- to remain unnamed -- "appropriated it" and put their names on it. Ahhh! Life on the internet!) In any case, the pandemic appears to be peaking now, which means by February most of those who will be infected will already have been infected -- at which point we'll roll right into the regular flu season.
As for the swine flu vaccine, that's your call. It's neither as dangerous as some people would have you believe nor as effective as others promote. There is definitely a small risk when taking the vaccine, and the younger you are, the greater the risk. And of course, it's unlikely to prevent you from getting the flu. What it may do is moderate the intensity of the flu enough to reduce the severity of any cytokine storms so that you won't have to go to the hospital. Then again, the swine flu itself is equivalent to a moderate flu so that you are unlikely to need to go to a hospital in the first place. And the vaccine's ability to prevent hospitalization or death is purely theoretical. There is no proof yet that it will actually do so.
But of course, you have the option of using natural immune system boosters that will do much the same thing but without the potential side effects. In that regard, government agencies now get very upset if you mention any natural health alternatives by name, so we won't go there. But I've written up examples of generic immunity boosting formulas that can do the trick. (See below.)
On a similar note, the World Health Organization has recommended that antivirals such as Tamiflu need to be administered early (during the virus' incubation phase) to at-risk groups, in order to prevent progression to severe disease. And this is true, as far as it goes. Antivirals do not prevent the flu; in fact, if they are administered after you get the flu, they merely lessen its severity. But in this regard, Tamiflu and Relenza are barely effective. Then again, as long as H1N1 remains no stronger than normal flu, barely is good enough to keep the viral load low enough to avoid a fatal cytokine storm in most people. But make no mistake, medical antivirals have side effects and are not foolproof. Some people have died who relied on them as their sole treatment. And some have died just because they used them!
And as with the flu vaccine, there are a number of natural antivirals that have proven throughout the entire existence of humanity to have powerful effects against all flus (swine flu included) -- with no sign that viruses have been able to mutate around them. And there is a veritable orgy of studies supporting the efficacy of natural antivirals. Agencies such as the FDA choose not to recognize these studies, but they exist nonetheless. In fact, there are far more studies supporting the effectiveness of natural health alternatives for dealing with swine flu than there are supporting the use of the swine flu vaccine. Far more!
So should you or shouldn't you get the swine flu vaccine? That's up to you. Again, unless you defy the odds, you have less to fear than many are promoting. (Then again, I'm not sure that Desiree Jennings would be comforted to know she defied the odds.) Then again, it's important to remember that you also have less to benefit than you are being promised. Or to paraphrase Kenneth Alexander, whom I cited earlier, "We've been baking this bread for 60 years, and we still have not one single shred of proof it actually does anything, buddy."
Bottom line is that it's your call. If you don't get the swine flu vaccine, you will want to strengthen your immune system to keep it optimized, and you will want a supply of antivirals on hand so that you can take them at the first sign you've got a virus entering the incubation phase (scratchy throat, body ache, lack of energy, etc.). And of course, when it comes to antivirals, you know my preference on the pharmaceutical VS natural question.