One Nurse's Thoughts on the Flu Shot
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
I am a Registered Nurse (RN) of over 12 years at this writing, and I have administered many flu shots to people of all ages in hospital, home and clinic settings. When I worked in a clinic which served pediatric through geriatric populations, I attended a training in vaccine handling and science by the federal program Vaccines for Children at the local health department. I have handed many people the Influenza Vaccine Information Statement sheets which shares CDC-approved information about the flu shot or nasal spray. However, this sheet and the information I learned in my education and training does not include all of the information needed to truly give informed consent for the flu vaccine, so I wanted to share some additional information to consider when making this decision for yourself or your loved one.
In nursing school we were taught that all vaccines are safe, effective and necessary. This concept carried over into my training and practice as an RN in various settings including the cardiac unit in a large teaching hospital, a Long Term Acute Care Hospital where people would mainly come to wean off ventilators, the ER, an outpatient Medicine-Pediatric clinic, and now hospice. So, when it came time to get my employer-mandated flu shot when I was 12 weeks pregnant with my third child, I didn’t hesitate. Several hours after getting the shot, I developed a high fever, fatigue, and full-body aches. I had been told by my doctor that a fever during pregnancy is dangerous, so I called his office and reported my symptoms. When he discovered that I had received the flu shot earlier in the day, he told me that it was likely just a reaction to that, that my immune system was just responding normally, and to call back if the symptoms didn’t resolve within 48 hours.
This puzzled me. Why was a high fever dangerous if caused by a bacteria or virus, but not by a vaccine?
For answers, I decided to start by reading the package insert of the flu vaccine the next time I was in the clinic. I was shocked to discover that the vaccine I had received was classified as Pregnancy Category C, meaning “that animal reproduction studies have shown an adverse effect on the fetus and there are no adequate and well-controlled studies in humans, but potential benefits may warrant use of the drug in pregnant women.” I had been mandated by my employer and subsequently consented to receive a vaccine that could have harmed my baby. I had not given true informed consent for the flu shot and I also suddenly realized I had not obtained true informed consent for any of the flu shots I had given to other pregnant women.
After these realizations, I began to research the potential effects of the “normal immune response” I had to the flu shot. I discovered the concept of Maternal Immune Activation (MIA) which had recently begun to be linked to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism in offspring. MIA is the mother’s immune response to something, not necessarily an infection. Solek et. al. state “This suggests that immune activation in general, rather than a specific pathogen, disrupts normal brain development.” So, the response my body had to the flu shot, which I was told was normal, was a reaction that could have contributed to a neurodevelopmental complication for my baby.
I am sharing this detailed account of my experience with the flu shot while pregnant not to present it as the reason for everyone else to refuse the vaccine, but to show how we are not given the full spectrum of information by our trusted medical professionals before we consent to it. I was one of those medical professionals and I didn’t know anything other than the reported benefits and mild/rare side effects either!
I want to be very clear that I am not advocating for or against anyone else consenting to the flu vaccine. I am only sharing information that I have found while researching the flu shot for myself and my family with the goal of providing others with additional data for their own decision-making process.
Some additional information to research further before consenting to the flu vaccine:
1. The yearly CDC estimates of flu vaccine effectiveness are consistently low. The vaccine effectiveness from 2004-2018 only ranges from 10-60%. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/past-seasons-estimates.html
2. The flu shot does not prevent transmission of the virus from one person to another, and having been previously vaccinated against the flu can actually increase the amount of virus a person sheds.
3. Flu vaccines can cause serious injury, including death, and we do not do very meaningful screening to determine who might be at a higher risk of complications. I found this screening tool online, but I had never seen or used it before.
4. Flu shots are the most-compensated vaccine in the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) and the most reported in Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), the system that tracks vaccine injury and death reports. https://vaccine.guide/ncvia-vicp-vaers/vaccine-injury-compensation-program/current-payout/
5. Flu vaccination can cause an increased risk of non-flu respiratory virus infections. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22423139
6. The live-virus nasal flu mist can result in an infection with and transmission of influenza. The attenuated-virus flu shot cannot cause an infection with influenza has the virus has been deactivated.
7. Yearly flu vaccination can cause decreased immune response to future exposure to influenza.
8. Here is the ingredient list of the flu (influenza) vaccines. Some of the more concerning ingredients to research further are polysorbate 80, animal proteins, formaldehyde and thimerosal.
9. The flu shot is not the only or most effective way to prevent the flu. Vitamin D levels are significantly linked to flu infection and complications and there are many other lifestyle factors to consider.
10. Influenza can be managed at home and most people get through it without severe complications.
11. Flu medications such as Tamiflu come with risks and the science behind their benefits is controversial.
A word about fear:
A lot of our decision-making around our health or the health of our kids is driven by fear. We fear complications from infections as well as from interventions such as vaccines. We fear social stigma if we make decisions that are different from those of our peers. Some of us fear legal repercussions from decisions not sanctioned by regulatory agencies.
I personally feel that arming ourselves with information is the best strategy for combating fear-based decision-making. When we have a comprehensive knowledge base about a topic such as different health conditions, we are better able to weigh risks and benefits of things like infections and their recommended interventions. We can get plans in place for all possible scenarios, and we can confidently address concerns from peers and regulatory agencies. So, I recommend that you dig deeper into the points about the flu and flu vaccine that I have listed above and become as knowledgeable as possible with the available information. Don’t consent to a flu shot just because everyone else seems to be doing it, and don’t decline it just because you heard a story about a bad reaction to it.
Fear and worry can lower a person’s immune system function, so it is very important to make decisions that you are comfortable with, especially when it comes to health.
Knowledge truly is power!