This fall, the urgency to get a flu shot seems greater than any other year in recent memory. Television and magazine ads stress not only how the shots protect against illness, but also how a new version offers a smaller needle, personified by a talking hedgehog who gets a haircut to show just how small that needle is. Besides doctors’ offices and health care facilities, pharmacies, discount stores, and grocery stores offer convenient opportunities for patients/shoppers to get vaccinated. Nearly every time I use the automated phone service to refill our prescriptions, I must listen to the pharmacy’s ad recommending that people get a flu shot now, followed by the times these shots are available at their stores.
In dealing with Alex’s persistent case of thrush and cheilitis, or yeast overgrowth in and around his mouth, we have taken him to five different doctors or nurse practitioners in the past few months. In addition, he has had blood tests three times. Almost every time we have taken him for medical treatment or testing, we have been asked if he has had a flu shot this season. When we have said no, the health care provider has asked us if we would like for her to give him a shot, and every time we have said no. I then quickly and vaguely explain that he doesn’t do well with the preservative in flu shots, which usually ends the discussion. At his family doctor, I had to sign a form that we refused the flu shot and provide a reason in writing. Despite my desire to teach the staff with a more detailed explanation as to why flu shots are not a good idea for Alex, I simply wrote that he has adverse reactions to preservatives found in flu shots.
When I was younger, I was a proponent of flu shots. As a middle school teacher, I’m constantly exposed to various illnesses from my contact with students who may come to school ill or carrying germs prior to showing symptoms of illness. In addition, my internist recommended that I receive a flu shot annually because of the effect viruses can have on my chronic autoimmune condition, idiopathic thrombocytopenia. Basically, a virus can send my immune system into overdrive, causing my spleen to destroy healthy blood platelets, which are necessary for blood clotting. Since I already tend to have a low platelet count, the effects of a virus can potentially put me at risk for bleeding. Following my doctor’s advice, I would annually get vaccinated against flu. However, in those days, flu shots were not available on every corner, and I would constantly search the local newspaper every fall to see when and where flu shots would be given. One year, a limited supply of the vaccine allowed only the elderly and chronically ill to be eligible for flu vaccines, which meant that as a relatively healthy young adult, I didn’t qualify to receive a flu shot. Perhaps coincidentally or through blessings from God, that year I never became sick at all—no flu, no cold, nothing. In some years when I had gotten the flu shot, I still came down with flu, a possibility always mentioned when flu shots are given. After the year I stayed healthy despite not having a flu shot, I decided that I wouldn’t get flu shots any more, and I believe that I am healthier each winter than I was the years I received flu shots. For me, I suspect that not tampering with my body’s overly sensitive immune response enables my antibodies to react more appropriately when a virus or flu activates them.
For Alex, I have a different reason for refusing flu shots for him. When he was eleven years old, I asked his doctor if we could have him tested for heavy metals after I had read that many children with autism carry toxic loads of various heavy metals because their bodies have difficulty removing them in the detoxification process. Although she didn’t think he probably had heavy metal poisoning, she understood my concerns and agreed to run a heavy metals urine challenge test, which required that I collect his urine over several hours. When the results came back, she and we were surprised to discover that Alex had toxic levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and aluminum. In fact, his arsenic levels were the highest she had ever seen. To remove the heavy metals, Alex had to go through chelation therapy by taking DMSA pills, a sulfur-based compound that binds with the heavy metals and removes them from the body through the urinary and digestive tracts. This process took over two years before testing showed that his heavy metals levels were in the normal range. While we don’t know the original sources of all the toxins, we suspect that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccinations, likely contributed to his mercury poisoning.
Even though most people in the medical community argue that thimerosal has no connection to autism, this mercury-based preservative was removed in 2001 from most vaccines children receive. However, many flu vaccines still contain thimerosal unless they are single-dose vials or syringes since thimerosal is supposed to protect multi-dose vials from contamination by bacterial or fungal growth. [I confirmed this information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. To go to their website on flu vaccine safety, click here.] One year when a particularly virulent strain of flu was infecting children, I asked Alex’s doctor if he should get a flu shot to protect him. She was adamant that he not receive the vaccine because of the effects of the thimerosal on him. In addition, she did not want him to have the nasal version that does not contain thimerosal because she felt the live vaccine it contains was not good for him, either. Instead, she assured me that prevention, such as washing hands and making sure he had proper nutrition and plenty of rest, would likely prevent his getting flu in the first place. If he did get the flu, she would treat him with antivirals and boost his immune system so that his body could fight the virus without the vaccine. I trusted her judgment, and Alex stayed healthy that year. Since then, I have never even considered having Alex get a flu shot, remembering her medical advice and praying God would keep him well. Thankfully, this approach has worked well, and Alex rarely gets sick. Moreover, we have limited his exposure to mercury, a known neurotoxin, which his nervous system certainly does not need.
Despite the CDC’s dire warnings of the dangers of flu, stating, “Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death,” we will not be getting flu shots this year. Even the CDC admits that the vaccine’s effectiveness depends on many factors: “How well the flu vaccine works (or its ability to prevent influenza illness) can range widely from season to season and also can vary depending on who is being vaccinated.” Certainly, I respect the decision of others to get vaccinated against the flu, but with no guarantees that that shot actually prevents flu and with the added potential dangers of thimerosal, I’m not willing to take that risk for Alex or myself. In the meantime, we follow the best advice my internist ever gave me for good health: “Plenty of rest, proper nutrition, and lots of prayer.” This sounds like a good plan to me.
“Lord, your discipline is good, for it leads to life and health. You restore my health and allow me to live!” Isaiah 38:16