By Brett Spiegel

Public health officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have amped up their push for people to get vaccinated against the flu, saying that virtually everyone should get an annual flu shot.

But in a new article published in the British Medical Journal, Peter Doshi, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in comparative effectiveness research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, questions whether flu vaccinations really offer the benefits the CDC claims.

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Recent outbreaks of SARS-like coronaviruses and other flu-like diseases may have upped the ante on conditions that could become epidemic or even pandemic, but Dr. Doshi argues that flu shots may actually be less safe and less advantageous than we think. “Consider vaccines versus other methods of prevention such as hand washing,” he said. “CDC claims vaccines are the best protection against flu. Where are the studies that show superiority of vaccination against other methods of preventing flu?”

Doshi expressed special skepticism of two recent studies cited by the CDC to support its pro-vaccination efforts. The first was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and stresses influenza vaccine’s role in risk reduction for pneumonia, hospitalization, and death in seniors. The other, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the overall death rate from flu has decreased by 48 percent as a result of vaccination.

Doshi says these studies used test subjects who tended to lead healthier lives that would include getting vaccinated, a concept he refers to in his article as the “healthy-user effect.” If study participants are generally healthy individuals to begin with, then scientific findings are neither realistic nor representative of the overall population.

“Randomized trials or, failing that, prospective cohort studies would be better than what is currently being used to justify policy,” Doshi asserted. “All the influenza strains put together comprise just a portion — perhaps 1 in 6 — of all flu because most flu is not influenza.”

Additionally, Doshi says that flu vaccinations should join the list of poorly tested products being marketed to the American public. “Here the salesmen are public health officials, worried little about which brand of vaccine you get so long as they can convince you to take influenza seriously,” he said. “But it is essential to base those messages on solid science, and here is where CDC is failing when it comes to influenza.”

Nonetheless, the CDC stands firm that vaccination is the still the method for flu prevention.

“Influenza vaccination is the first and best preventive tool we have against influenza,” said Darlene M. Foote, CDC public affairs specialist. “Flu vaccine can not only reduce your risk of getting sick with flu, it also can reduce your risk of being hospitalized from flu and may reduce your risk of dying from influenza.”

Either way, it appears that both the CDC and Doshi agree that flu is a potentially life-threatening plague the requires appropriate attention and intervention. Here are some simple steps you can take to stay healthy during flu season:

– Keep your distance from those who are already sick. If you are sick, stay home from work or school to prevent others from falling ill.
– When sneezing or coughing, cover your nose and mouth to prevent germs from spreading. Also avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth as germs can be transmitted from infected objects you touch.
– Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
– Clean your home or work space, especially if others around you are ill.
– Manage your stress and make sure to load up on sleep and physical activity in addition to drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutrient-dense foods.

Flu Vaccine Advice May Be Flawed, Expert Says” originally appeared on Everyday Health.