Some Say Flu Vaccine Does Harm

December 6, 2010

By Elise Chretien and Saquoia Freeman
VCU Multimedia Journalism Masters Program

A 21-year-old Texas man reported chest pains. A Colorado toddler had a seizure. A 54-year-old Virginia woman collapsed.

Those were some of the side effects reported after people got flu vaccines this year. But then something very unusual happened to those three patients and 63 others:

They died.

Federal officials have received reports of about 11,000 adverse reactions – including 66 deaths – possibly associated with the administration of vaccines for influenza or the H1N1 virus (commonly called swine flu) in 2010.

Those incidents are listed in a government database called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Over the past five years, the system has recorded a total of 38,000 incidents, including 219 deaths, possibly linked to flu vaccines.

The database does not imply cause and effect. In fact, it comes with a warning: “Some of these events may occur coincidentally following vaccination, while others may truly be caused by vaccination.”

Moreover, the number of flu-related reports in VAERS is minuscule compared with the millions of Americans who get the vaccine – and compared with the toll that flu takes: Every year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications, and an average of 23,600 people die from the flu, federal officials say.

Still, some people – including a handful of medical professionals – are shaken by reports of adverse reactions to flu vaccines. They say the vaccines may do more harm than good.

One such skeptic is Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician and natural health practitioner in Illinois.

On his website, Mercola says he believes the H1N1 vaccination suppresses your immune system and may contain heavy metals that limit your brain function. He speculates that the vaccine may interfere with T cells (which help your body fight diseases) and may trigger allergies.

“Mainstream media is fanning the flame of paranoia as big pharmaceutical companies are expecting to make a killing with global swine flu vaccine sales, using untested and potentially dangerous flu shots,” said Mercola, who wrote a book titled “The Great Bird Flu Hoax.”

Over the past five years, VAERS has received more than 1,200 adverse reaction reports from Virginia – including seven deaths – possibly related to flu vaccines.

Virginia teenager Brittany Ingram, 16, received the flu shot last January. After receiving the vaccine, she said she became ill for a week.

“I would not recommend the vaccine for people with weaker immune systems,” Ingram said.


Most experts say the vaccine is not only safe but crucial in preventing you from catching the flu. That’s why the vaccine is promoted in pharmacies, public schools, universities and other places.

The flu season typically runs from late fall through early spring. The seasonal flu is highly contagious and results in symptoms such as fever, coughing, headaches, body aches, runny noses, chills and fatigue.

Some people are especially likely to suffer from serious complications from the flu. They include people who are 65 or older, children under 2 and people who have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, congestive heart failure or lung disease. Flu complications can include bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and dehydration.

To prevent the spread of the virus, the U.S. government recommends that everyone 6 months and older receive the flu vaccination once a year.

The government especially recommends that those with high complication risks – such as the elderly, young children and health care workers – receive the vaccine as soon as it is available.

Sally Chiappazzi, immunization coordinator for the Peninsula Health Department in Newport News, recommends that people of all ages receive the flu shot once a year. She reported very rarely observing negative side effects.

Rebecca Early, deputy division epidemiologist for the Division of Immunization of the Virginia Department of Health in Richmond, said side effects are mainly caused by certain factors.

“The risk of possible side effects depends on the vaccine and patient factors — for example, allergies,” Early said.

This year’s vaccine protects against three types of the influenza virus: H1N1, H3N2 and the influenza B virus. Scientists alter the vaccine each year based on international surveillance and research into which virus strains will be most prevalent that season.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services operates the website. It urges people to get vaccinated, noting, “Flu can cause a range of symptoms and effects, from mild to lethal.”

The website lists possible side effects from receiving the flu shot. They include soreness, fever, and aches and should last only one to two days.

“Almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it,” the website says. “However, on rare occasions, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as allergic reactions.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are responsible for monitoring the safety of the flu vaccine.

The CDC and FDA maintain the VAERS database to keep track of any possible side effects caused by vaccinations in the U.S.

Anyone – including health-care providers, patients and family members – can file a VAERS report. “Reports vary in quality and completeness,” the VAERS website notes. “They often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors.”

Federal officials use the VAERS data to decide whether to investigate further.


The safety of vaccines is a concern not just in the United States but also in other countries.

In 2009, Finland, France and Sweden all reported cases of narcolepsy in teenagers who received the H1N1 flu vaccine. In Australia, a study found that children were more likely to end up hospitalized after receiving the vaccine than from catching the virus itself.

The U.S. has had several nationally publicized stories of individuals suffering from bizarre and serious illnesses after receiving the flu shot.

For instance, Washington Redskins cheerleader Desiree Jennings says she acquired a rare neurological disorder, called dystonia, days after getting the vaccine. Dystonia causes sustained muscle contractions, repetitive movements or abnormal postures; there is no cure for the disease.

It remains unclear whether the flu vaccine caused Jennings’ dystonia or whether she would have developed the disorder anyway.

In another case, a Virginia teenager came down with Guillain-Barre syndrome hours after receiving the vaccine. Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when a person’s immune system attacks the nerves, causing muscle weakness, difficulty walking and even paralysis or death.

If you are unsure whether you should get vaccinated, you should speak with your physician.

“Part of the process of getting vaccinated is having a dialogue with your health-care provider about the benefits and risks of vaccination,” Early said.

Here is a spreadsheet with a summary of flu-vaccine-related incidents contained in the VAERS database. The spreadsheet also lists the reports in which someone may have died after receiving the flu vaccine. The number of deaths rose in 2009 as millions more people received the newly developed vaccine against the H1N1 flu.

The CDC has more information about vaccines and immunizations.

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