An Alternative “Truth” About Flu Shots

  Vaccines, and flu shots in particular, have been covered ad nauseum on this blog; but the anti-vaccine propaganda never stops, so forgive me for bringing it up again. A correspondent inquired about a podcast by Steve Wright on Revolution Health Radio entitled “The Truth About Flu Shots (and What to do Instead).” You can either listen or read the transcript. It’s just too funny to pass up. That is, it would be funny if it weren’t endangering our public health by spreading misinformation.

Wright found an “expert” to interview: Chris Kresser, L.Ac. That’s Licensed Acupuncturist. Kresser says the dogma about flu shots is not evidence-based and they are over-promoted and over-hyped. He cites studies that cast doubt on their efficacy. He says a low percentage of health care professionals get them, which suggests to him that they know something that the general public doesn’t know. He says everyone should decide for themselves; but he doesn’t get flu shots himself, doesn’t think the risks justify the benefits, and interprets the evidence as showing that flu shots don’t work. He dismisses positive studies that were funded by industry. He dismisses studies about efficacy in the elderly because they rely on unreliable epidemiologic evidence. He says the risk of dying from flu is less than the risk from “other things, like car accidents and flying in a plane and stuff.” He says the studies on Tamiflu are biased. Based on a comment a former FDA employee supposedly left on his blog or on Facebook (he can’t even remember which), he claims the FDA approval process for vaccines is a joke, that they don’t put them through any of the same protocols that they would for normal drug development. (This is demonstrably false.)

Instead of Vaccines

He refers listeners to an article he wrote on his own blog about how to prevent (and treat) colds and flu naturally. His recommendations include:

  • A nutrient-dense, low-toxin diet with no sugar or refined flour but with lots of organ meats (!)
  • Fermented cod liver oil
  • Bone broth
  • Fermented foods
  • Probiotics
  • Neti pots
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Handwashing
  • Zinc
  • Staying away from children
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • The Chinese herbal formula Yu Ping Feng San, or Jade Windscreen
  • Lactoferrin
  • Lauricidin
  • Raw garlic

He says he recognizes the need for scientific studies but he seems to rely on trying things for himself and listening to the anecdotal accounts of others.

Laughable References

His research abilities and the references he found to cite do not inspire confidence. He provides links to:

  • The writings of a prominent anti-vaccine spokesperson
  •  An article in Scientific American that actually undermines his thesis (it reports the evidence fairly and questions the vaccine’s efficacy in the very young and very old but clearly says it works for older children and adults)
  • The article he wrote himself about natural flu remedies
  • Some of the systematic reviews mentioned in the Scientific American article
  • 4 links to pages offering various natural products for sale. (I don’t recall ever seeing Amazon pages proffered as references before.)

The studies he cites only demonstrate what we all know: the flu vaccine is far from ideal. Strains change every year, protection is far from 100%, and older adults don’t benefit as much as younger ones. People over 65 don’t develop as robust an immune response to the vaccine, so a new high-dose formula has been developed with four times as many antigens; studies have shown that it generates more antibodies but studies to determine its effectiveness in actually preventing cases of the flu are still in progress. We tell people if they don’t want to get the vaccine for themselves they should “get it for grandma” because the more vulnerable older and younger groups will be at less risk if more people are vaccinated so the disease can’t spread as well through the community.

He cherry picks the evidence and interprets it from a biased perspective. Experts in various fields put their heads together and reviewed ALL the published evidence and all the current scientific knowledge before they issued the official recommendations. They have seen and carefully considered all the studies he mentions. It is arrant hubris for him to think he knows more than all of them or has better judgment or has access to privileged information that the rest of us don’t.

Contradicting Himself

He says:

flu vaccines are not effective for adults. You have to treat between 33 people when the vaccine and infecting strain are well matched, which is rare, and 100 people when they’re not well matched, which is much more common, to prevent a single case of flu.

He says they are not effective but in the very next sentence gives statistics showing that they are effective! He’s talking about the NNT, the number of people needed to treat for one to benefit, and the numbers he provides are in line with a lot of other treatments we accept as effective. Who is he to decide that preventing one case of flu for every 33 to 100 people vaccinated is not worthwhile? I probably have less than a 1 in 100 chance of my house burning down, but I consider it worthwhile to have fire insurance. Remember that the goal of flu shots is not just to prevent deaths, but also to prevent suffering from flu symptoms and to reduce complications, time lost from work, and spread of disease in the community.

Not Enough Evidence, So Try Something with Less Evidence

Perhaps the funniest thing about his spiel is that after criticizing current flu shot recommendations for inadequate evidence, he proceeds to recommend a series of methods to prevent and treat flu naturally, methods that are supported by far less evidence and usually no evidence at all.


Why would anyone go to Kresser for advice about vaccines? He’s an acupuncturist, for Pete’s sake! His whole livelihood is based on a prescientific system of mythological qi and meridians. His website offers inaccurate information and questionable advice on diet, diabetes, heart disease, thyroid disorders, skin health, heartburn, and depression. He even offers a paleo detox program.

This podcast is an ignorant, biased distortion of the facts; and despite his protestations he is clearly trying to dissuade listeners from getting flu shots. It’s unfortunate that he is spreading this rubbish. He wants to talk people out of needles that might actually do some good, while deceiving them with useless acupuncture needles. Let the listener beware!

I didn’t take Latin; would that be caveat auditor?

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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