Does Natural Immunity Protect Better Than the Flu Shot?

When it comes to the flu shot, does the "one size fit all" model benefit everyone?

By Dr. J.E. Williams | | Reading Time: 5 minutes

influenza vaccination, flu shot

If catching influenza provides stronger natural immunity against the flu than vaccination, why do pharmaceutical companies, government health agencies, and most doctors push flu shots?

The short answer is that standards of care, as recommended by the CDC and medical associations, require all licensed physicians to follow the same protocol.

The long answer is complicated. Influenza viruses can’t be easily pinned down. They present a nearly infinite number of variables. Influenza comes in multiple strains that constantly mutate and recombine. That’s why annual flu shots are necessary. But, a vaccine that worked one year, very likely won’t work the next. And, vaccines don’t work equally as well in different age groups.

Public health experts agree that natural immunity last longer. Yet, they argue that overall the benefits of vaccine-acquired immunity outweigh the risks of natural infection. Deadly epidemics, pandemics, and seasonal influenza will continue to occur. Flu vaccine advocates hold that vaccination is one way to protect the most vulnerable, the very young and elderly, from severe complications and death.

Does Catching the Flu Protect or Harm Your Health?

True, some strains of influenza can be deadly. But mostly catching the flu is an annoyance illness. It keeps you out of work or from school for a few days. You may have to spend a weekend in bed. However, your immune system never sleeps.

Catching the flu provides long-term immunological memory that enlists a rapid response against future infections. Natural immunological memory is so efficient that it can last a lifetime. Compare that to the flu vaccine that only provides immunity for thirty to sixty percent of those vaccinated, depending on age, with protection for about six months.

Influenza vaccination has to offer a broad range of effectiveness because the flu varies from season to season, according to the type of influenza strain.

Age also makes a difference in vaccine effectiveness. During a four-year study of vaccination results among people older than 65 years, researchers called into question the effectiveness of flu shots for seniors.

The CDC estimates that 63.4% of people over 65 years get vaccinated. Compare that to 32.7% for adults between 18-49 years.

It turns out that the science is questionable if flu shots have any benefit at all for seniors. So, they get a higher dose to get an immune response.

The ‘high dose” vaccine was designed specifically for those over 65. It contains four times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot. But, the higher dose also has more side effects including pain and swelling at the injection site, headache, muscle aches, and flu-like malaise.

An Alternative to the Flu Shot?

Another option for those over 65 is FLUAD; the standard-dose inactivated flu vaccine with the adjuvant MF59. An adjuvant is a helper compound that promotes a stronger immune response. MF59 comes from squalene oil produced from plants.

MF59 has been used in Europe since 1992, and was first licensed in Italy in 1997. FLUAD was licensed in the U.S. in 2015.

Researchers know that influenza vaccine effectiveness falls off sharply from about 60% to 30% after age 55. The squalene adjuvant boosts efficacy in those 65 years back up to 60%.

A 2010 study found MF59 adjuvant influenza vaccines induced a more significant immune response, including among older adults with chronic conditions.

A 2017 study in Italy found MF69 more effective for the elderly than the regular flu vaccine.

A 2018 study in Spain calculated that use of MF69 adjuvant flu vaccine would save the EU 89.5 million Euros a year in medical costs.

But some health experts question the safety of injected squalene. The high incidence of autoimmune disorders in Gulf War vets has been associated with MF59 used as an adjuvant in anthrax vaccines.

European researchers found that immunity acquired naturally by exposure to influenza viruses is different from that stimulated by vaccination.

Five Flu Shot Concerns:

  1. Repeated flu shots for seasonal strains of influenza can increase the risk of severe infections to aggressive pandemic strains.
  2. People who get flu shots may be more susceptible to other types of viral respiratory infections.
  3. Not only do flu shots provide only short-term immunity, but they also fail to offer any protection about half of the time.
  4. Depending on the type of influenza strains circulating during flu season, the effectiveness of flu shots can be as little as thirty percent.
  5. Some years are statistically worse. Flu shots during the 2004-2005 flu season were only ten percent effective.

If the CDC admits that flu vaccines fail at least half of the time, why does the government insist that everyone gets vaccinated?

Not All Doctors Are Convinced That Annual Flu Shots Work

If about sixty percent of doctors and nurses opt out of getting annual flu shots, why does the media present it as if all healthcare workers support the flu vaccine and get vaccinated themselves? When enforced by the threat of getting fired, more healthcare workers get immunized than lose their jobs.

But a 2017 study of healthcare workers found that enforced vaccination for healthcare workers to protect patients lacked sound empirical and scientific evidence.

Health care workers in the European Union are even less likely to get a flu shot than American doctors and nurses.

Kelly Brogan, M.D. calls flu vaccines “a shot never worth taking.” She is not alone. There is an extensive list of doctors not for annual flu shots. These doctors refer to their position as supporting vaccine choice, rather than outright anti-vaccination.

Awareness and Influenza Immunity

Awareness of how the flu spreads and avoidance of infection may be more effective than getting a flu shot. If you are not exposed, you will not get sick.

Researchers and physicians know that the immune system is an intricate web of complex responses, signaling, and cell memory. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites are everywhere. Over a lifetime, we’re exposed to countless numbers of microorganisms. Most are not harmful. Some even strengthen our immune system.

Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, reviewed more than 12,000 scientific papers and medical documents and called for a game-changing policy on influenza vaccines. The bottom line is that flu vaccines do not work as well as earlier research presented.

Even the CDC accepts that flu shots are not perfect. We have not yet created a universal, safe, and effective influenza vaccine. Scientific experts admit that they know less about how flu shots work, or why they do not work than they did five years ago.

Options to Prevent and Minimize Spread of Infection:

  • Avoid close contact with infected individuals
  • Limit contact with others if you suspect infection
  • Frequent hand washing
  • Wipe counters with paper towels
  • Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth of infected individuals (or your own)
  • Cover your mouth and nose if sneezing
  • Use paper tissue
  • Use a face-mask
  • Stay at home if you get infected

These preventative measures may be more effective in preventing infection and minimizing its spread than the flu shot.

To learn more about prevention and treatment of the flu, read my 3 part series on beating the flu.

Questions Remain

Though influenza research advances, many unanswered questions remain. How well do flu shots work? Apparently not that well. Even if flu shots work for you during one flu season, after a lifetime of annual flu shots, will your immune system become less responsive or altered in ways that make you more susceptible to other infections? Are there immunological advantages to getting exposed to influenza viruses early in life? Besides giving stronger shots to the elderly, what can we do about the lack of effectiveness of flu vaccines in later life? We don’t know the answers to these questions.

By mid-January 2018, Florida hospitals were filled with flu cases. February looks even worse. Most of these patients were elderly and those with underlying chronic conditions that compromise immunity. And most were vaccinated as usual standard of care.

Patients often ask me what my position is on the flu shot. I’m for intelligent choice. I am neither anti-vaccination or pro-vaccination. But, I’d like to be better informed based on valid and current research before I routinely recommend flu shots. That’s just my standard of care to my patients.