The Flu Vaccine Controversy

Flu vaccines are safer than you think. Moment Mobile/Getty Images

For something so widely accepted by the medical community, vaccines - and flu vaccines in particular - are surprisingly controversial among the general public.  

Let's be clear about something here - vaccines work. We have decades of research and evidence showing they are safe and effective for the vast majority of people. Because we have vaccines - we no longer have to worry about things like polio and smallpox in the United States.

With more worldwide availability of vaccines, we are coming close to eradicating whooping cough, measles, polio and diphtheria across the planet. 

So why do people fear these life saving vaccines? The people in developing countries who are dying without them certainly wouldn't refuse them, so why do so many people in the United States? Is it because most of us who have young children now have never known a time when these diseases were common? Somehow the severity of these now nearly non-existent illnesses has been lost on our society. We think that because we have information about everything we could imagine right at our fingertips - and because anyone can post anything on the internet, that we know better than the scientists, doctors and public health officials who study and train for years to develop these vaccines and prevent these diseases in the first place. Many people are more inclined to believe a "celebrity" or random article on the internet than the health care providers we see in person and trust our health with for everything else.


The Problem With Flu Vaccines

The controversy seems to be even more heated when it comes to flu vaccines. After all, we have to get them every year and their efficacy varies by season

But there are many claims about them out there that seem to have taken hold in people's minds and many of them are simply lies.


Let's take a look at some of the most common:

  1. The Flu Vaccine Can Give You the Flu. This is not scientifically possible and cannot happen. The vaccine is made from either a killed virus or inactivated virus, but neither can replicate in your body and make you sick with the flu
  2. The Flu Vaccine Doesn't Work. It's true that some years the vaccine is more effective than others. If the strains of the flu included in the vaccine are not a good match for the strains that are circulating, it won't provide as much protection as it does when the strains are the same. But that doesn't mean it doesn't work at all. Even when it isn't a good match, there is still evidence that those who have been vaccinated have more mild illness if they do get the flu than those who have not. 
  3. Flu Vaccines Are a Money Making Scheme for the Pharmaceutical Companies. It's true that there is a profit margin on vaccines. They are made by private companies (so called "Big Pharma") that sell them to health care providers who then give them to us. However, the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines are not making monstrous profits off of vaccines. In fact, less than 10% of annual profits from the major pharmaceutical companies come from vaccines. They make a lot more money making medications to treat diseases and chronic conditions than they do making vaccines to keep us healthy. To put that into perspective - according to the journal Health Affairs, "annual revenues for Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering agent, are greater than revenues for the entire worldwide vaccine industry."
  1. Flu Vaccines Are Full of Toxins and Poisons. Vaccine critics often claim that flu vaccines are full of harmful ingredients that will damage your body and immune system. The truth is, almost all of the ingredients in vaccines are also found in other places in our environment. We eat, absorb or are exposed to much larger doses of these ingredients than are included in flu vaccines. Not only that, but decades of research and evidence show that vaccines are safe.


Offitt, Paul A. "Why Are Pharmaceutical Companies Gradually Abandoning Vaccines?" doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.24.3.622 Health Aff May 2005 vol. 24 no. 3622-630. 30 Mar 15. 

"Vaccines Bring 7 Disease Under Control". The Progress of Nations 1996. Unicef. 29 Mar 15. 

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