What to Know About Flu Vaccines Before You Get One

March 22, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2016

Starting this year, around 150,000 school-age children in New York City will be required to get a flu shot. The Epoch Times spoke with the president of the National Vaccine Information Center, Barbara Loe Fisher, about how flu vaccines were different last year, and what you can do to learn more about any vaccine you or your child may choose—or are required—to get. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Epoch Times: 2013 saw some changes in the influenza vaccines available to Americans. Can you explain?
Barbara Loe Fisher: Yes, there were more vaccines, different influenza vaccines, made in different ways, on the market this year [2013] than ever before, at least here in the United States.There are many more manufacturers who have come into the influenza vaccine market.

Epoch Times: Why are there more vaccines being manufactured?
Ms. Loe Fisher: The market has really opened up in the U.S., certainly since passage of the National Childhood Vaccination Injury act of 1986, which gave manufacturers a partial liability and the doctors’ liability protection for vaccine due losses.

Then in 2011, the U.S. Supreme court eliminated all remaining liability in the civil courts in this country for vaccine injuries and death in terms of suing the manufacturer for product liability. So as of 2011, there is no liability attached for the manufacturers of vaccines, including the influenza vaccines, when someone is injured or dies.

As a result we have more and more vaccines—in this case, influenza vaccines, that are being put on the market. 

Epoch Times: Can you explain the new ingredients that appeared in some influenza vaccines in 2013?
Ms. Loe Fisher: This last year [2012] the FDA, which licenses the vaccines for our country, they approved several new ways of making vaccines, so this year [2013] we have two new influenza vaccines, one that is using army worm caterpillar cells for production and the other is using dog kidney cells for production instead of eggs

The use of chicken eggs has been the way all manufacturers have made influenza vaccines, both the live virus vaccine, which is the nasal spray vaccine that you inhale, but also the injectable, inactivated influenza vaccine. 

You have to use a lot of chicken eggs in order to produce influenza vaccines, and so the manufacturers got approval from the FDA to use these new cell substrates for production. 

Epoch Times: What is the advantage of dog kidney and army worm cells? 
Ms. Loe Fisher: They allow the manufacturers to produce more vaccine more quickly. Several years ago, in 2009, when you had the H1N1 pandemic the manufacturers were very upset and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] was upset that they couldn’t produce a pandemic influenza vaccine more quickly, and they all agreed that they had to move away from chicken eggs and they had to use cell substrates that allowed the virus to grow more quickly and these army worm and dog kidney cells allow the virus to be replicated more quickly.

Epoch Times: Is there any disadvantage to using the dog and insect cells?
Ms. Loe Fisher: There has been some controversy about these new cells. With the insect cells, insects have viruses as well as humans and there has been a concern that there may be insects cell viruses that are not detected because infection can be harder to detect and sometimes difficult to eliminate, as the World Health Organization, the CDC, and the FDA admit.

The dog kidney cells, the controversy there has been tumorigenic cells, if there [will be] some kind of an issue with cancer down the road. FDA says the advantages of using the cell line outweigh its tumorigenic concerns. But still the jury is out. Are the use of these dog kidney cells to produce influenza vaccines, down the road, going to cause some increases in tumors or in cancer?

The question becomes, how much evidence is enough evidence to give the green light to the manufacturers. 

Our organization has wanted a raising of the standards for proof of safety. However, the FDA and the CDC, and the manufacturers, claim that it is more important to get the vaccines out on the market and prevent influenza. 

Epoch Times: What are the risks associated with influenza? If we did not have these vaccines, how many people might die each year? Is there data on this? 
Ms. Loe Fisher: There is controversy about that figure. The CDC, had been saying, after about 15 years, that there are 36,000 people in our population of about 316 million people who die from influenza. They have backed off from the 36,000 per year figure. Their now saying it fluctuates from 3,000 to 49,000 depending upon the year. 

One of the problems of that is the only reportable influenza cases are people under 18 years old. The other suspected cases of influenza are not [kept on record]. The CDC doesn’t really keep records, what they do is make estimates based on influenza like illness, (ILI), which of course includes other kinds of respiratory illnesses that are not caused by influenza type A or type B influenza [the ones prevented by flu shots].

The CDC does admit that 80 percent of flu-type illness is not caused by type A or type B influenza. So about 80 percent of all flu like illness, respiratory illness, that looks like flu when you have a cold, a cough, a headache, body aches, etc. is not actually influenza. Only about 20 percent is influenza. People don’t realize that when they get sick in the winter, they can’t assume that it’s influenza. 

And that of course starts to muddy picture here, in terms of the effectiveness of the vaccine versus the risks associated with the vaccine because there are risks associated with every vaccine. And those risks can be greater for some than for others because of course we are not all the same biologically and genetically. 

Epoch Times: How can people make more informed choices about the vaccines they plan to take?
Ms. Loe Fisher: My advice is to get the product manufacturer insert and take a look at it before you go into the doctor. Find out what vaccines your doctor is carrying, and then based on your research, make a decision. 

You can go to our website, nvic.org, we have all the product manufacturer inserts posted there, and you can read about the vaccine because the FDA requires the manufacturers to publish product package inserts that list the ingredients of the vaccines, that list the pre-licensure clinical trials, what they found in the clinical trials regarding effectiveness and reactions reported, the contraindications, (reasons why the manufacturer feels the person might not be a candidate for vaccination).

The pregnancy category is also there. The FDA pregnancy category for these [influenza] vaccines is B or C, which women who are pregnant may want to look at. 

Editor’s Note:
The FDA pregnancy category B means that studies on pregnant animals showed no harm to their fetus, but that there are “no adequate and well-controlled studies in pregnant women.” Pregnancy category C means studies on pregnant animals showed “an adverse effect on the fetus” and that there are “no adequate and well-controlled studies in humans, but potential benefits may warrant use of the drug in pregnant women despite potential risks.”