At this time of year many people (in the US especially) are getting, or at least thinking about getting, flu shots. So I thought this would be an ideal time to talk about flu shots, and vaccinations in general, particularly in relation to those of us who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia.
First of all the flu vaccine is one of the most controversial in terms of its use, efficacy and safety. Of the commonly used vaccines perhaps only MMR is more controversial due to the media circus generated by the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the UK around 10 years ago.
One of the main problems with the flu vaccine is that the selection of the particular virus that is put into vaccines involves a large amount of guesswork with the end result being that the actual strain causing people to get flu in a particular year is often completely different to the virus people have been immunized against with the vaccine. Essentially then having had the flu vaccination in this situation offers no protection against getting the flu at all.
In fact, in the 1994-1995 flu season the CDC reported that 87% of type A influenza virus samples were not similar to that year's vaccine, and 76% of type B influenza vaccine was not similar to that year's vaccine. Reports for previous years show a similar story.
What may also be surprising is that the primary side-effects of the flu vaccine are in fact, the flu. The symptoms being listed as fever, fatigue, muscle aches, and headache. More seriously the flu vaccine has been associated with an increased risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease affecting the nervous system.
The flu vaccine is often recommended for those with asthma, allergies, and chronic respiratory problems who are considered at increased risk of suffering more severe symptoms or developing complications if they were to catch the flu. Those with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia may also fall into this group as there is an increased prevalence of allergic disease amongst sufferers of these conditions.
Unfortunately it is exactly these immuno-compromised individuals who are likely to experience adverse reactions to the flu vaccine, and indeed other vaccines.
According to Philip F. Incao, M.D., vaccines tend to stimulate the humoral immune system (known as Th2) whose job is to recognise foreign substances and make antibodies against them while they do nothing to stimulate the cellular immune system whose cells such as neutrophils and monocytes actually attack and remove these substances. As a result he says, vaccines shift the immune response to a Th2 dominant position which ultimately increases the chances of auto-immune and allergic diseases developing (learn more in Dr. Incao's article: How Vaccinations Work).
So based on this, giving vaccinations to people with allergies, asthma, ME/CFS and fibromyalgia (all conditions linked to Th2 dominance) may in fact rather than protecting them against flu, do more harm than good.
ME/CFS and fibromyalgia specialists seem divided on the issue of flu shots for their patients with many reporting flare-ups after the shots but others point out that those with these illness are affected particularly badly by the flu.
It must therefore be a personal decision for those affected by ME/CFS and fibromyalgia whether to get a flu shot based on past experience of both vaccine reactions and having flu itself.
My personal view is that there are many immunological abnormalities in ME/CFS and fibromyalgia that are far from being fully understood. What seems to be clear is that there is a shift to a Th2 immune response with an increase in co-existing allergic diseases and decreases in numbers and activity of immune cells involved in the cellular (Th1) immune reesponse. With this in mind is it wise to mess about with things further by introducing powerful immunomodulatory substances such as vaccines into the system?
I am lucky to not have had the flu in more years than I can remember, and have never had a flu shot so cannot comment on it from personal experience. The last time I did have flu, yes it was worse than it was when I was younger and healthy, but I'd rather battle through it than risk further long-term deterioration in my health after receiving a vaccination.
Something I can talk about from experience is the tetanus vaccine. I received a booster aged 14/15 after being ill with ME/CFS for 3 years. Now, the tetanus vaccine is on much more solid ground than the flu vaccine and is regarded as highly effective in fact all but eradicating the disease. However, as Dr. Randall Neustaedter, who practices Chinese medicine and homeopathy, says in his book 'The Vaccine Guide: Risks and Benefits for Children and Adults', the most common side-effects from the tetanus vaccine are swelling and abscesses at the injection site. After my tetanus booster I exprienced severe swelling on my upp arm and shoulder but was also bed-ridden for a week with severe viral-like symptoms....fatigue, muscles aches, headaches etc.
This experience, and others, along with research into ME/CFS and the way vaccinations work, has convinced me that vaccines are not a good idea for patients suffering from ME/CFS, fibromyalgia or other allergic and autoimmune conditions. I agree with Dr. Incao's position that vaccinations should be given more selectively based on the state of an individual's immune system and whether it is likely to respond in a postive or negative fashion.
If you suffer from ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, asthma, allergies or other autoimmune conditions, what have been your experiences with vaccinations? Have you had bad reactions or have you been fine? I think this is a really important and interesting area which spans medicine, politics and social issues so I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
Learn more about specific vaccines and the process of vaccination in general from Dr. Randall Neustaedter's book:
About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.