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Flu Shots, Mercury, and Ideologic Medicine

Posted 11/23/2010

I must say I was surprised by the degree of hostility I received when I recommended flu shots. If you want to chance it, get the flu, and die, that’s your choice. But to say I’m a dupe of the drug companies because I think flu shots are a good idea, well, expect escalation of my dander.

According to the emails I’ve received, one very popular Huge Alternative Website (HAW) says that because of my immunization recommendation I can no longer be trusted, that I’ve fallen prey to Big Pharma. Right up front, I confess I’ve not searched this website for my name, but apparently, according to its enthusiast, I did merit a dishonorable mention.

“Wait!” I protest. “Let’s have a little sense of history here. Please, someone go read poet-physician William Carlos Williams’ extraordinary essay that describes watching a child die before his eyes, choking to death from diphtheria, before you dismiss all immunizations as a conspiracy of Big Pharma. Diphtheria is pretty much history, thanks to immunizations.

Maybe you’re simply too young to remember the polio epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s. The horror of polio is well described in Philip Roth’s latest novel Nemesis . In it, he reminds us how our perfectly lovely children went from healthy to dead (yes, dead) in 72 hours if struck with polio. Terror? You can’t imagine how frightened your grandparents were about polio. The polio epidemic predates the existence of most of you, but I well remember how people wept unashamedly when Jonas Salk announced he had discovered a vaccine that prevented polio. Now polio is gone. By the way, Salk gave his vaccine to the world. No royalties, no monster check. He felt his discovery was too important for him to profit from it personally.

But back to flu shots.

Some years ago when I was specializing in geriatric medicine, there happened to be a particularly virulent flu epidemic. I clearly remember signing one death certificate an hour for three straight days–almost 70 deaths–for nursing home patients dying of flu complications. The victims were mainly older adults whose families, for one reason or another, refused to allow their parents to submit to the “dangers” of a flu shot. I assure you that experiencing this many patients dying before your eyes can alter your perspective about flu immunization.

The Huge Alternative Website bases its anti-immunization stance on the fact that vaccines contain a mercury compound, thimerosol, as a preservative. HAW’s syllogism is thus:
• Mercury is a poison (I have no problem with this).
• Vaccines contain mercury (a very very tiny amount).
• Therefore, vaccines are poison (now wait a minute!).

Mercury poisoning is a question of degree. Since mercury thermometers were taken off the market, we don’t see much mercury poisoning. Despite decades of lawsuits from patient groups and “concerned” dentists (mainly those whose income is largely derived from removing dental amalgams containing mercury), no studies have emerged that attribute a specific illness to mercury-containing dental amalgams. Neither the FDA nor the American Dental Association (both conservative to the core) recommends getting your amalgams yanked.

What about mercury and fish? Several years ago epidemiologists concluded that the health benefits of eating fish vastly surpassed the alleged dangers from the mercury they contain. They do caution pregnant women and very young children to avoid larger fish caught in polluted waters, like rivers. The Japanese, who devour incredible amounts of fish, boast one the longest life spans on the globe with no more dementia (the cage-rattler of anti-vaccine mercury ideologues) than anyone else.

You may recall the New York Times article a couple years back that stated sushi tuna contained toxic levels of mercury. That, too, turned out to be opinion, not fact.

So let’s talk a bit about ideological thinking. When you’re an ideologue, your belief surpasses evidence that might be contrary. You deliberately ignore this evidence or argue it to death. A bumper sticker some years ago from the American Chiropractic Association reading “Say No to ALL Drugs” is classic ideological thinking. Does such a slogan mean “no antibiotics for pneumonia?” “No insulin for diabetes?” Fortunately, most contemporary chiropractors don’t follow this no-drug stance.

To me, reading the Huge Alternative Website is Ideologic Medicine 101. The writers replace fact with opinion, and their opinions are potentially dangerous to your health. When you’re told to avoid all immunizations, eat no grains, and serve your family unpasteurized milk, you’re taking serious chances with your current incarnation.

Having a website, even a well-trafficked one, is not the same as having an exclusive license on reality. Whether in politics or health care, thinking that refutes evidence or cherry-picks evidence to align with its opinion is dangerous.

All I’m asking is that you be skeptical: of me, of your posh specialist at Northwestern, and of all the Huge Alternative Websites on the world wide web.

Question authority, and don’t be enthralled by any ideology, any authority figure, or any website, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive and live to…

Leave a Comment


  1. Lois says:

    Thank you for your insightful, well written, informative emails. Anyone who has read your previous emails would know how ridiculous it is to say you are just working for big pharma.

    Another interesting point for getting the flu shot, from NPR.

  2. Judy Kayser says:

    Way to go Dr. E! One of the very first things I think of, after told I am going to be a grandma again, is “is this baby going to be old enough to be vacinated before the flu season starts”. If not, I know I will be on pins and needles once flu season starts and they are old enough. Thanks for setting things straight.

    I recently read an article about the high death rate from whooping cough……all babies who were not immunized, for whatever reason.

  3. Margot Davis says:

    What is your opinion of the theory that the flu vaccine only immunizes against a few (or maybe only one for all I know)strains of flu, and many strains exist, so how can one assure their shot will help the strain they may contract?
    Thanks,
    Margot

  4. Dr. E says:

    Hi Margot
    The influenza virus is quite a rascal. It changes slightly every year to outsmart our immune systems and our vaccines. Scientists grow the virus, watch how its changing, try to second guess it’s plans, and develop vaccines in an attempt to outsmart it.
    Sometimes two or three strains emerge and they’ll create a vaccine that allows your immune system to develop antibodies against all of them.
    Then the next year, they have to repeat the process.

  5. Hasani Kudura says:

    Thank you for your rational and informative website. My husband and I get flu shots at Walgreens, since a bad bout of flu a few years ago that weakened us for months. We ask for mercury free—actually “preservative free” shots—and have no trouble getting them, even tho they are supposedly for children and we are over 60.

  6. Susan says:

    Thanks, Dr. E!
    All it takes is a trip down memory lane to remember a horrendous week of the flu & I’m rolling up my sleeve for that injection.

    Thanks for the rebuttal and keep those snarkies at bay!

    Thanks for helping to keep me healthy all year! Love your newsletter articles! Susan

  7. Florence Estes says:

    I’m an evidence-based believer. I’m quite susceptible to respiratory illnesses in the winter, which have often been triggered by bouts with the flu. For the past 10 years I’ve been getting the shots, and have been bronchitis free ever since! I did get the flu one of those years, so there is a small risk that the shot doesn’t cover the strain that finds you. But my odds are that 9 out of 10 years, I’m be free of flu. I’ll take that to the bank!

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