Bad flu shot marketing or genius way to sell Airborne?
“Well, if you want to stick around for a flu test, I can give you some Tamiflu.”
“No thank you,” I shook my head.
“Okay, at least let me write you a scrip for cough syrup with codeine so you can sleep.”
“Again, thank you but no,” I said.
The doctor looked at me, bewildered, “Then why are you here? Don’t you want to feel better?”
I do. Believe me, I want to feel better. I’ve been fighting off what I thought was a head cold for over a week and when my cough suddenly got worse, I broke down and took my husband’s advice to go to the doctor. But I didn’t go to get meds, I’d gone to make sure that my cold hadn’t turned into pneumonia or something. Once we’d established my lungs were clear as a bell, I was ready to drag my sorry self home and go back to bed.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely not against doctors or modern medicine or even prescription drugs (I take my anti-depressant every day!). We vaccinated all our children. And antibiotics even saved my son’s life. But personally I just don’t like taking medicine for normal things my body can handle on its own. Yeah my cough is exhausting and I’d like it gone but it’s not going to kill me and eventually it will get better on its own.
Not relevant at all to the flu but I just had to show you how creepy Rumpelstiltskin is!
On the show Once Upon a Time (a show about fairy tales and enchantments and all that, it’s not important you know the plot but my kids love it so we watch it every week don’t judge me), Rumpelstiltskin (yes, the gold-spinning, baby-snatching evil genius) is fond of saying, “Remember, magic always comes with a price!” whenever someone wants to use a spell to take the easy way out of something. I kind of feel the same way about medicine – it can be a miraculous healer but it always comes with a price, in the form of side effects. Sometimes, like when my infant son came down with a fever of 108 (!), it’s worth paying any price. Even when he got a bowel infection that gave him months of diarrhea because the antibiotics wiped out his gut flora, I still considered the IV antibiotics worth it because at least he was still alive to poop on me.
(And hooooboy did that kid poop all over me. He got the nickname “squishy” because every time we’d go to get him out of his crib, his jammies would be so full of crap he’d squish. By the way, once we got him on a high-quality probiotic it resolved within days. Amazing.)
But for a head cold? Even if the risk of side effects is small, it’s still not a price I want to pay. The flu (as in the real influenza, not a tummy bug) is a different animal though. At its worst it’s a ruthless killer, as evidenced by the 1918 pandemic that killed 30-50 million people in a single year, more than died during the entire duration of World War I. But most of the time the flu is deadly only for the very old, the very young or people with compromised immune systems. It can still be very bad and unpleasant – which is why I choose to get my flu shot every year – but for most of us that get it, we’ll be fine with a little r&r.
Once you’ve got the flu, traditionally there hasn’t been much you can do for it but to manage the symptoms and let it run its course. Antibiotics are useless (or worse than useless since their overuse cause drug resistance) because it’s caused by a virus. But then in 2009, the FDA approved the antiviral Tamiflu, and later Relenza, to help decrease the severity of the flu and even possibly prevent getting it. This news was seen as not just a way to take less sick days but as a veritable miracle, perhaps preventing another worldwide flu pandemic. And for anyone who’s ever seen any pictures of the 1918 flu pandemic, you’ll agree that we’d be willing to pay almost any price to prevent that devastation from happening again. And pay we have. The US alone has spent $1.3 billion stockpiling antivirals.
But that may have been a waste of money, says a new study published jointly by the Cochrane Review and the British Medical Journal that reviewed the data from drug trials (many previously unpublished) involving more than 24,000 people. The researchers concluded “the drugs were of only marginal benefit, shortening the duration of influenza symptoms by just half a day.” They added that they found no good evidence that the drugs prevented the spread of the virus between people nor did it prevent any of its serious consequences, such as pneumonia or infections. But they did find Tamiflu and Relenza increased the risk of psychiatric disturbances, renal problems, nausea, vomiting and headaches.
This evidence directly contradicts the findings of earlier studies. The Chochrane Review, considered by many to be the gold standard in research, said this is because the drug companies withheld data from more than 50% of the people they studied. British Medical Journal editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee said the review was the result of many years of struggle to access trial data previously hidden from view.
Oy. Now, I’m not usually one of those big conspiracy types but this is straight out of a medical thriller. Except without a rakish damaged-but-good-at-heart hero to save us all. Where is Jack Ryan when we need him?!
But, let us not forget that flu kills 4,000 – 49,000 people a year in the U.S. alone while the number of deaths attributed to Tamiflu is…7. And many community health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are worried that this negative study will hurt people.
“We need better antivirals, including combination antiviral treatments, but right now this is all we have got,” said Dr. Tim Uyeki of the CDC’s flu division. “CDC recommends early antiviral treatment as soon as possible for any hospitalized patient with suspected or confirmed influenza. The number of observational studies suggesting the benefit of early antiviral treatment in hospitalized patients keeps growing.” He added that the benefits of Tamiflu, given as a pill or in a syrup and Relenza, an inhaled powder, “greatly outweigh” any side effects.
So, which is it – worldwide corporate conspiracy to foist useless pills on us all or the opening salvo in the war against a disease that has the potential decimate the human race?
My doctor tried one last time to get me to reconsider saying, “I really think you’re being silly. You’re a busy mom! You need to get better as soon as possible.” Her comment struck me as one more example of our go-go-go always-give-100% culture. Maybe I don’t need to get back to my crazy life as soon as possible. Maybe I just need more rest. I left empty handed.
So should I have taken the Tamiflu? Eh, I’m not sorry I didn’t take it (or the codeine for that matter). And I’m feeling better already.
What’s your stance on flu meds? Any of you used Tamiflu? Who wants to write the novel about this conspiracy?