Health and Science News for Parents

It’s That Time Again: Separating Fact from Fiction about the Flu Vaccine

written by Tara Haelle

This post is co-published with NPR’s health blog Shots. Check out the story for updated information about this year’s flu shot from a CDC medical officer.

Once again, flu season is upon us — and so are all the misconceptions, excuses and worries that have kept so many people away from getting their flu vaccines. Plenty of people are fully informed about the flu vaccine’s safety and effectiveness and simply choose not to get the vaccine, as is their right (as long as they don’t work in healthcare settings where it’s required). But many others may have skipped the shot because they’ve bought into one of the many myths about the vaccine that always circulating with the influenza virus itself. Or perhaps they’ve read something unsettling about the vaccine that has a kernel of truth in it, but which has been blown out of proportion or misrepresented.

Of all the vaccines out there, the flu vaccine is unique in several ways: it’s the only one the CDC recommends for the entire (eligible) population every year, it has the most variability (and nearly always the lowest percentages) in effectiveness, and it has more tall tales told about it than Paul Bunyan. Much of the debunking and explaining you’ll find here is essentially the same as in past years’ posts, but a couple misconceptions have been rearranged, and I spent a bit more time discussing the evidence about potentially lower effectiveness of the flu vaccine in people who had gotten it the previous year.

Don't let bad information get in the way of making an important health decision.

Don’t let bad information get in the way of making an important health decision.

Another change you’ll find is that the “myths” are now concerns, phrased as questions. What’s up with that? I made that change for a couple reasons. One relates to the research findings that straight up stating myths and then debunking them can backfire, though this new approach doesn’t necessarily eliminate that risk. Another reason is that stating misconceptions declaratively implies an adversarial approach by the reader when, in reality, I hope and expect the majority of people reading this post genuinely have questions about the vaccine. So writing each one as a question better represents that spirit of inquiry.

Finally, I called these items “concerns” instead of “myths” because several of the issues discussed here are not outright “myths.” That is, some of these concerns originated from factual situations, but the details got gnarled and twisted along the way, or else the fact itself doesn’t have the implications people may expect it does. “Concerns” therefore better captures that each of these items is a legitimate concern for many people but is something that simply requires explanation, whether that’s an outright debunking or simply context and clarification.

One thing that needs a bit of clarification is last year’s vaccine’s effectiveness, as I discuss in the NPR Shots blog post that accompanies this one. The overall flu vaccine effectiveness last year was an uninspiring 23%, low enough to legitimately make you wonder why you bothered if you got the vaccine. But as I explain at NPR based on an interview with CDC influenza medical officer Lisa Grohskopf, the overall effectiveness doesn’t capture the effectiveness of each strain within the vaccine.

A poor match with the H3N2 strain — which caused the most illness and the most serious cases — was responsible for the lion’s share of that low number. Meanwhile, the match between the vaccine strains and the virus strains for B viruses, which circulated the most toward the end of the season, was good enough that the vaccine was closer to 60% effectiveness for those strains. This year, changes to the H3N2 strain for the vaccine should boost the effectiveness and offer a better showing than last year’s lousy run, according to Grohskopf.

With that info out of the way, let’s get to the flu vaccine concerns, with two important notes. First, for those who prefer to do their own research, I’ve provided all my sources in the hyperlinks. More than half of these go directly to peer-reviewed research articles, and a fair number go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

Second, but very important: I am a science journalist but not a medical doctor or other health care professional. I’ve compiled research here to debunk common misconceptions and clarify common concerns about the flu vaccine. This post does not constitute a recommendation from me personally to each reader to get a flu vaccine. You should always consult a reliable, trusted medical professional with questions that pertain specifically to you. For the CDC recommendations on the 2015-2016 flu vaccines (including information on which vaccines pregnant women, the elderly and children under 2 should *not* get), please consult the CDC flu vaccine recommendations directly. There are indeed people who should *not* get the flu vaccine.

To make it easier to navigate, I’ve listed all 31 concerns at the top followed by the factual information below it. They hyperlinked facts will jump to that explanation. I use “flu shot” and “flu vaccine” interchangeably to refer to any type of flu vaccine, including the nasal vaccine.

Concern #1: Can getting the flu vaccine give you the flu or may you sick?
Fact: The flu shot can’t give you the flu.

Concern #2: Do I really need to get the flu vaccine this year if I got it last year?
Fact: For now, a new flu shot each year is still recommended.

Concern #3: Could getting the flu vaccine make it easier for me to catch viruses, pneumonia or other infectious diseases?
Fact: Flu vaccines reduce the risk of pneumonia and other illnesses.

Concern #4: Isn’t the flu shot just a “one size fits all” approach that doesn’t make sense for everyone?
Fact: You have many flu vaccine options, including egg-free, virus-free, preservative-free, low-dose, high-dose and no-needle choices.

Concern #5: Can the flu shot cause death?
Fact: There have been no confirmed deaths from the flu shot.

Concern #6: Aren’t deaths from the flu exaggerated?
Fact: Deaths from influenza range from the lower thousands to tens of thousands each U.S. flu season.

Concern #7: Aren’t the side effects of the flu shot worse than the flu?
Fact: Influenza is nearly always far worse than flu vaccine side effects.

Concern #8: Don’t flu vaccines contain dangerous ingredients such as mercury, formaldehyde and antifreeze?
Fact: Flu shot ingredients do not pose a risk to most people.

Concern #9: Shouldn’t pregnant women avoid the flu shot or only get the preservative-free shot? Could the flu vaccine cause miscarriages?
Fact: Pregnant women are a high risk group particularly recommended to get the flu shot. Fact: The flu shot reduces miscarriage risk. Fact: Pregnant women can get any inactivated flu vaccine.

Concern #10: Can flu vaccines cause Alzheimer’s disease?
Fact: There is no link between Alzheimer’s disease and the flu vaccine; flu vaccines protect older adults.

Concern #11: Don’t pharmaceutical companies make a massive profit off flu vaccines?
Fact: Vaccines comprise a tiny proportion of pharma profits. That makes it possible for them to continue making them in the event of a pandemic.

Concern #12: Flu vaccines don’t really work, do they?
Fact: Flu vaccines reduce the risk of flu.

Concern #13: But flu shots don’t work in children, do they?
Fact: Flu vaccines reduce children’s risk of flu.

Concern #14: Can flu vaccines cause vascular or cardiovascular disorders?
Fact: Flu shots reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Concern #15: Can vaccines can break through the blood-brain barrier of young children and hinder their development?
Fact: Flu vaccines have been found safe for children 6 months and older.

Concern #16: Will the flu vaccine cause narcolepsy?
Fact: The US seasonal flu vaccine does not cause narcolepsy.

Concern #17: Can the flu vaccine weaken your body’s immune response?
Fact: The flu vaccine prepares your immune system to fight influenza.

Concern #18: Can’t the flu vaccine cause nerve disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome?
Fact: Influenza is more likely than the flu shot to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Concern #19: Can the flu vaccine make you walk backwards or cause other neurological disorders like Bell’s palsy?
Fact: Neurological side effects linked to flu vaccination are extremely rare (see Concern #18), but influenza can cause neurological complications. Fact: The flu shot has not been shown to cause Bell’s palsy.

Concern #20: Don’t people recover quickly from flu since it’s not really that bad?
Fact: Influenza knocks most people down *hard*.

Concern #21: Can people die from the flu even if they don’t have another underlying condition?
Fact: Otherwise healthy people DO die from the flu.

Concern #22: Can people with egg allergies get the flu shot?
Fact: People with egg allergies can get a flu shot.

Concern #23: Can’t I just take antibiotics if I get the flu?
Fact: Antibiotics can’t treat a viral infection.

Concern #24: Since I got the flu last time I got a flu shot, that means it doesn’t really work for me personally, right?
Fact: The flu shot cannot guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it reduces everyone’s risk.

Concern #25: But I don’t need the shot since I never get the flu, right?
Fact: You can’t predict whether you’ll get the flu.

Concern #26: Can’t I protect myself from the flu by simply eating right and washing my hands regularly?
Fact: A good diet and good hygiene alone cannot prevent the flu.

Concern #27: Won’t getting the flu simply make my immune system stronger?
Fact: The flu weakens your immune system while your body is fighting it and puts others at risk.

Concern #28: If I get the flu, why won’t just staying home prevent me from infecting others?
Fact: You can transmit the flu without showing symptoms.

Concern #29: Can having a new vaccine each year make influenza strains stronger?
Fact: There’s no evidence flu vaccines have a major effect on virus mutations.

Concern #30: Isn’t the “stomach flu” the same thing as the flu?
Fact: The “stomach flu” is a generic term for gastrointestinal illnesses unrelated to influenza.

Concern #31: Is there any point in getting a flu shot if I haven’t gotten one by now?
Fact: Getting the flu shot at any time during flu season will reduce your risk of getting the flu. Read the rest of this entry »


Help “Shatter the Myths” about postpartum depression

written by Tara Haelle

When I had my first son, I and my husband were on the lookout for symptoms of postpartum depression. I have a history of depression and am therefore already at higher risk for postpartum depression than the average person. As I have already written, I did not experience the overwhelming love that so many new moms describe, and that did worry me. But I also felt fortunate that I never fell into the depths of postpartum depression. Perhaps it was my vigilance, perhaps it was the support I had, or perhaps I was just really damn lucky.finalMTTDgraphic1-1

I was not so lucky with my second child. I had my second son while working on our book (thank goodness it’s done!). I struggled a great deal with breastfeeding and was not able to exclusively breastfeed him as I had done with my first son and as I had planned. (That is a whole other post I will write another day.) I was fine for the first several months, but eventually I did experience postpartum depression. It was not so surprising considering I had experienced prenatal depression as well, the cousin that no one remembers to talk about.

Fortunately, however, I knew the signs, and I had received enough support in treatment in the past that I knew to seek help quickly. I contacted my OB/GYN’s office and began seeing a therapist in addition to adjustments to my medication. Early, prompt treatment is essential to recovery. Postpartum depression is an illness like any other, and it requires treatment.

Other women, however, are not so fortunate to have the support, knowledge, and understanding of postpartum depression as I did. They suffer in silence, believing they are worthless, inadequate, horrible mothers. They may worry about hurting themselves or their child sometimes. They alternate between thinking the way they feel is normal and thinking they are completely abnormal. They don’t know that they need to get help, or perhaps worse, they are scared to ask for it. Read the rest of this entry »


What happens when you mix cuddles with philanthropy? An opportunity for a conversation

written by Tara Haelle

The insanity of my schedule of late has meant that I’ve not kept up with blogging here as much as I’ve wanted to. I have a few pieces in the works to rectify that. But I needed to publish this post today because it involves an opportunity that ends this evening — a “discount” on sending 10 meals to children in need.

Everest the Penguin is one of the cuddle+kind dolls whose purchase donates 10 meals to families in need.

Everest the Penguin is one of the cuddle+kind dolls whose purchase donates 10 meals to families in need.

Of course, I’ll need to back up a bit first to explain. I rarely write about items I’m offered or mailed sent to review because more than enough “mommy bloggers” fill that role already and my focus is on evidence-based parenting topics. But today I’m breaking that rule of thumb — I think for the first time? — because it somewhat fits my desire to expand the blog’s focus a little bit into areas of social justice, albeit remaining grounded in evidence.

One area I’d like to explore is evidence-based ways we can teach our children empathy and encourage them to think more broadly about the world outside their community. Although I have not had a chance to delve into this research yet, I suspect simply starting conversations about the needs of children overseas — kids relate to other kids — may be a start for the youngest children. That’s precisely the kind of opportunity that a new non-profit called cuddle+kind offers.

Created by Jennifer and Derek Woodgate of Milton, Ontario, cuddle+kind sells handmade dolls, each of whose purchase donates 10 meals to children by way of their partners, World Food Program USA and Children’s Hunger Fund. (Both these charities rank high on the Charity Navigator.) You can read the specifics about the dolls on their website, but I agreed to check out one of the dolls they sent for a couple reasons. One was that they selected such high-quality charities to partner with. Another was that the dolls are manufactured by Peruvian women, providing them with fair trade income. That’s an issue dear to my heart both as someone who advocates for gender equality and fair trade and as someone who has visited Peru multiple times. Read the rest of this entry »


A Q&A with me about vaccines, health communication & immunization legislation

written by Tara Haelle

As you’ve probably noticed by the recent erratic posting on this blog, I’ve been crazy busy. Some has been good — lots of new assignments and new opportunities — and some has been challenging — family health issues — but it’s all made it difficult to blog as regularly as I want to, and I have a long list of posts half-written in my head and waiting to be finished and posted. fbtimeline_BirthTo6

Although I missed the opportunity to post much during National Immunization Awareness Month in August, I did answer questions for a Q&A with Sophia Bernazzani, community manager of MHA@GW, the official blog for the online master of health administration from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. They published the Q&A last week, and I’m reproducing it with permission here because I answer several questions that my blog readers may have as well. Enjoy!

Since last winter, there have been outbreaks of measles in the U.S., a disease that was declared eliminated in 2000. Recent incidences have been frightening because they’re manageable in a world where nearly everyone gets vaccinated, but some people use personal reasons to avoid them. What needs to change in the conversation to prevent future diseases and superbugs from becoming a full-fledged outbreak?

There needs to be a big overhaul in the way we talk about immunization to remove shame and finger-pointing from the conversation. I’ve found that some of the people who promote immunizations cite biological research but don’t also refer to social science research. However, there’s a lot of research on what convinces people to get vaccinated. What doesn’t work is shaming people and finger-pointing … and that’s what’s going on in conversations today. There also needs to be a change in how doctors talk to patients about immunizations. Patients have real concerns, and given rampant misinformation online and in the media, their concerns aren’t unreasonable. People can’t get all of the information they need about immunizations on Google.

But some doctors ask, “Why don’t you trust me?” when patients ask questions. That’s the wrong attitude. Skepticism is healthy, and many doctors aren’t well-equipped to handle all the concerns about immunizations that vaccine-hesitant parents may have during a 15-minute checkup. The problem is insurance companies don’t reimburse doctors for the extra time, so most can’t afford to spend more time with patients going over these concerns. I would love to see a complete overhaul of the health care system in which insurance companies could empower doctors to spend time with their patients to build trust and show them evidence to improve immunization rates.

Doctors need to be empathetic and compassionate, and not dismissive. I understand the perspective of a doctor who spends years in training and residency and is the subject matter expert. I can understand how doctors would feel insulted when patients say they don’t trust them. But it’s not about doctors, it’s about the big picture. It’s about patients versus vast amounts of misinformation, not patients versus doctors. There will be some people you can’t reach, but a lot more vaccine-hesitant people can be reached with empathy and compassion.

What are your thoughts on laws like S.B. 277, a law passed this summer in California, that eliminate personal and religious exemption from vaccines for school-aged children? Why aren’t other states passing similar laws?

Read the rest of this entry »


Presidential candidates misrepresenting vaccines? I can’t let that go.

written by Tara Haelle

It was late last Wednesday evening when I was just about to begin working again on a major feature due the next day — and a couple friends on Facebook alerted me that vaccines made an appearance during the Republican debate on CNN. Great, I thought. Just what I need. It was close to midnight, and I had a 6:30am flight the next morning to DC for a women-in-science event the following evening. I hadn’t finished packing, and the feature needed to be done by 5pm the following day. But after the third person mentioned the debate, I figured I needed to check it out.

Of course I needed a photo of myself in the NPR studios just before recording the segment with Audie Cornish. It was so awesome to meet her in person!

Of course I needed a photo of myself in the NPR studios just before recording the segment with Audie Cornish. It was so awesome to meet her in person!

I already knew that Donald Trump frequently repeated the vaccine-autism myth, so I assumed that Ben Carson had set him straight and that was that. I was completely blindsided and disappointed by Carson’s response, however. As soon as I finished watching the clip, I knew I would have to write about it. I couldn’t believe such a well-respected pediatric neurosurgeon had repeated the Jenny McCarthy mantra of “too many, too soon” and even suggested that “many” other pediatricians agreed. I also bristled at the implication that the CDC recommends any vaccines which don’t prevent death. Carson had been handed a golden opportunity to educate the masses watching the debate about a major public health issue, and he blew it.

I had been formulating the response in my head as I rewatched the clip from the debate and transcribed it, so I pulled up the CDC schedule and got to work, describing succinctly how each disease we vaccinate against can ruin or end a life and then describing the problems with the “too many too soon” mantra. I wrote the post quickly, scheduled it for 6am the next morning, packed, made some more progress on the feature story, and finally hit the sack at 2:30am. I was up by 5:15am for my flight and arrived in DC shortly after 11am.

Meanwhile, the Forbes post was gathering steam — fast. I’ve been blown away by the response — as I write this, it has over 375,000 views — and thrilled that it led to my first appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered, where I talked with Audie Cornish about the risks of delaying vaccines. I’ve written about this issue before for Scientific American, but it was a great opportunity to drive home the point that following the CDC schedule poses fewer risks than designing your own schedule (barring any legitimate medical concerns that are discussed with a doctor).

I still find it deeply troubling that three of the Republican candidate for president, including two doctors, were so misinformed or dismissive of vaccines and the CDC vaccine schedule. I don’t know if Carson truly believes what he said, was pandering to the Republican base, or was simply intimidated by Trump, but it none of those three possibilities inspires confidence in his leadership. I’ve received a significant number of emails and “corrections” to the Forbes post, including from MDs, chastising me for “misinterpreting” Carson’s words or having the audacity and arrogance to presume I know as much as a pediatric neurosurgeon. He has a lot of fanboys and fangirls, to be sure.

But I don’t need to know as much as Carson. I only need to know what the consensus of the scientific evidence shows, what the medical and public health communities agree on, and what the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the Institute of Medicine, and other major organizations make clear: the CDC childhood immunization schedule is as safe and effective as our current technology allows with vaccines. It’s not 100% safe, as nothing in life is or ever can be. But its benefits far, far outweigh its risks, and that’s something anyone wanting to govern the nation should know.You can read my Forbes post here. You can also read about Carson’s much more informed and sensible previous comments on vaccines in a post by Emily Willingham here. And Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg also covered the issue here.You can read the transcript of my NPR appearance and hear the segment here.


Handy chart for well-child visits and vaccinations

written by Tara Haelle

During National Immunization Month in August, various public health organizations created a wealth of resources for parents that relate to vaccines. One of those is elegantly simple and shared here. The Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences created a handy graphic that outlines all the ages when children get their well-child visits and what vaccines and screenings they get at each one. The graphic goes from birth to age 17 and couldn’t be presented more simply. It’s perfect for printing out to post on the fridge too.

Brought to you by Nursing@Simmons: FNP Program



Melanoma Facts: Are you protecting your kids (and yourself) from the sun?

written by Tara Haelle

Even though the summer is winding down, a little bit of August is still left, and the sun’s rays burn all year-round. When the beautiful fall days around the corner finally arrive, it might be easy to forget while playing outside for hours that exposed skin is still susceptible to being burned. That means protection from the sun in the form of clothing, shade or sunblock is vital. skincancertop

There are lots of scare stories every year about the “harmful chemicals” in various top-brand sunscreens. It’s true that some sunscreens have concerning compounds, and we need more research to learn what the actual possible effects (and from what dosage) of those compounds are. But the known risks of skin cancer such as melanoma currently outweigh the concerns of theoretical risks from sunscreen compounds.

The best sunblock is zinc oxide, which is very safe for the skin. Of course, it’s also bright white and doesn’t rub in, so it’s rarely a choice parents reach for (and rarely one kids will tolerate). The snafu this summer with the failure of Jessica Alba’s Honest Company sunscreen show how important it is to go with trusted brands that have a long track record of safety and effectiveness. We use Aveeno Baby in our home and continue to rely on it. PopSugar has a worthwhile list of 10 sunscreens for kids, as does (Of course, Alba’s sunscreen is on both of them, so it’s always buyer beware.) I’ve been asked many times to review sunscreens here on this blog, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to invest the time to do so. Read the rest of this entry »


Catching Up and Friday Video: “All About That Vax”

written by Tara Haelle

You’ve probably noticed the blog has been a bit thin of late. I have a long list of backlogged pieces to write, but the past seven weeks have been nonstop illnesses in our home — including ER visits, too many doctor visits to count, and even two hospital admissions and stays — so I’ve fallen way behind not only in blogging but in my regular work as well. About the only place I’ve been able to continue keeping up new articles is at Forbes. If you’ve missed my pieces there, I hope you’ll check them out.

I highly recommend the documentary Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic.

I highly recommend the documentary Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic.

Two weeks back, I wrote about the outstanding documentary Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. The timing was serendipitous since I had just before that written about the largest safety study on the HPV vaccine. I also wrote about teens’ use of e-cigarettes (vaping) and how Mark Zuckerberg’s pregnancy announcement helped destigmatize pregnancy loss. The latter story led to what will now be a permanent page on this blog in which women can share their stories of pregnancy loss.

I also wrote about a recent study looking at fear appeal strategies to change the minds of those who oppose vaccines, and then about a CDC study finding that too many middle school and high school students are still starting school too early. Had I not been dealing with all the insanity of illness in our home and had I planned better, I would have written about World Breastfeeding Week, but that would have required more time (and nuance) than I could spare lately.

I’m hoping to finally get caught up and posting some of the great stuff I have planned soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I wanted to share an awesome video from Voices for Vaccines, a fun “All About That Vax” music video.



A place to share pregnancy loss… and make it a little less lonely

written by Tara Haelle

IMG_6970I wrote yesterday about Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he and wife Priscilla Chan are expecting a daughter. In that announcement on Facebook, he also shared that the couple has gone through three miscarriages, a revelation that will no doubt help the many women who experience pregnancy loss every year and feel lonely and perhaps even guilty or stigmatized. To continue the process of sharing, I included in that post stories from women who had experienced miscarriages or stillbirths, and I received such a wonderful response that I have set up a page on this blog permanently where women can share their stories.

The new page is intended to be both a place where women’s (and men’s, if they wish to contribute) testimonies may provide some sense of understanding and empathy to the women who lose a pregnancy. Only by sharing these stories can we make the experience just a little less lonely, even if it may not assuage the pain. Anyone who wishes to contribute their story can send me an email at tara at redwineandapplesauce dot com. You can use your full name, only your first name, or your initials. There are no requirements. The page is intended to serve the women who share and those who read it and nothing else.



Introducing a new page of all my vaccine articles

written by Tara Haelle
Woohoo! All of my vaccine articles in one place!

Woohoo! All of my vaccine articles in one place!

NOTE: To skip right to the page of all the articles, click here.

I received an interesting and unexpected tweet last week: it contained a link to a blog post calling my credibility and independence as a journalist into question. To be honest, I found it amusing. If that shill check from “Big pHARMa” ever arrives as a couple folks seem to think it will, then it will certainly be nice not to feel chained to the massive debt of school loans that keeps me up nights, either working or worrying. Alas, until then, I will continue to get paid by actual journalism outlets for doing… actual journalism.

I won’t link to the post – a Google search of my name may turn it up – but the person who wrote it did me a favor. In their sad attempt to implicate me as an undercover writer for pharma companies, they compiled every single article I have written for Forbes that relates to vaccines in any way. (They seemed confused that I would write so much about vaccines for Forbes – that was part of their “evidence” that I was basically a shill – because they seemed unaware of the fact that Forbes has an entire healthcare channel of a couple dozen writers with different specialties. I was brought on specifically because of my specialty in reporting on vaccines.)

That list, complete with dates and links, was tremendously valuable. I copied and pasted it into a new page, added my other vaccine-related articles written for other publications, and Voila! I now have a page with every one of my vaccine-related journalism pieces in one place for reference. I’ve had friends ask for this before, but it’s not something I had time to pull together. The blog post by my “fan” made it possible by taking on the most time-consuming bit. And now, I’ll simply update it as I go along. So, enjoy the new feature, my Vaccine Articles Off-Site page right here.

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