A new theory about the flu vaccine makes connections to missing CDC staffer Tim Cunningham

Abby Haglage

The idea that flu shots cause the flu has been disproven by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the myth lives on. In this flu season, the deadliest in a decade, skeptics have taken it a step further — insisting the shot not only makes people sick, but also is fueling the entire epidemic.

Image: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Image: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

It’s a theory bolstered by the spinning of a recent event — the disappearance of a CDC staffer named Timothy Jerrell Cunningham. An epidemiologist at the Atlanta headquarters, Cunningham was reportedly last seen by his colleagues on Feb. 12, when he left work early because he didn’t feel well.

When the 35-year-old’s parents arrived at his home in Atlanta a few days later to look for him, they found his car, dog, and phone. Two weeks later, no one has heard from him. As officials continue to search, the Atlanta Police Department is offering a reward for any information on his disappearance.

What thrust Cunningham’s story into the influenza spotlight was a Jan. 18 post from controversial site YourNewsWire.com, which claimed to have spoken with a “CDC doctor” who said the flu shot was responsible for the spike in flu deaths. Fact-checking website Snopes investigated the claim and found it “false,” citing the CDC’s protocol of recommending the flu shot, as well as YourNewsWire’s history of fabricating quotes.

Although YourNewsWire did not identify the so-called CDC doctor in the Jan. 18 piece, in the aftermath of Cunningham’s disappearance the site has run with the narrative that it was Cunningham. In a Feb. 22 post titled “CDC Doctor, Who Claimed Flu Shot Caused Outbreak, Missing Feared Dead,” writer Baxter Dmitry claims to have spoken with Cunningham in January, and said he expressed concerns about his safety if his name got out.

Anti-vaccination groups have used this story as proof that the flu shot is causing the epidemic — and that anyone who talks about it is in danger.

This week, the theory was advanced by another site, Health Nut News, which ran a story under the headline “ABC: Experts Say Flu Shot Potentially Caused the Flu Epidemic.” In it, site editor Erin Elizabeth makes no mention of ABC News and instead uses an out-of-context quote from a nurse in Wisconsin, named Anna Treague, as “proof” that the flu shot is causing the epidemic.

Treague’s quote is taken from a Feb. 8 piece in Wisconsin’s Burnett County Sentinel in which she makes a comment about the efficacy rate of the current vaccine, and how it relates to H3N2, the virus currently spreading through the United States. Snopes.com reviewed Health Nut News’ claim that the flu shot causes the influenza epidemic — based on Treague’s quote — and deemed it “false.”

The Sentinel amended its story to add an editor’s note apologizing for the “potentially misleading” article, and specifically clarifying that Treague is not a CDC nurse, but one with Burnett County Public Health. “We regret the error and apologize for any confusion, inconvenience or misunderstanding it may have caused,” the editors write.

Although the current vaccine does not protect against H3N2, it can stop a co-infection from happening in the event that someone has H3N2. It’s not unusual for a flu vaccine not to offer full protection.

The constantly changing infection is always mutating into new strains, resulting in viruses that are antigenically different (producing different antibodies). But even a shot that doesn’t kill every infection can be lifesaving — and is. During the past nine years, the flu vaccine has prevented more than 40,000 flu-related deaths, according to the CDC.

When reached for comment about the conspiracy, Vanderbilt University infectious-disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner let out a chuckle and said he’s “bemused.” Schaffner had heard the story that the shot causes the flu, but he’s only recently learned of the conspiracy theory that it’s acting on a larger scale to spread the virus.

He calls the concept, in a word, outrageous. “There is no live virus in the injectable vaccine,” Schaffner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So that scenario is impossible.” To officially put to rest the notion that the flu vaccine caused the current epidemic (which the CDC also does here), Yahoo Lifestyle asked Schaffner to clarify some of the biggest misconceptions. Here are his answers.

Yahoo Lifestyle: What is the flu shot made of?

Schaffner: To make a flu shot, you start with the bad virus and you grow up that virus in the lab so you get a sufficient volume. The next thing you do is you kill it. After that you break it apart, and only take a few essential parts, and that becomes the vaccine. But it’s only the parts of a killed virus that are included in the injectable vaccine. It’s dead! Which means that the virus cannot reconstitute itself.

If there is no live virus, why do some people feel sick after they take it?

Two reasons. One, when you get an injection you get a local inflammatory response. Usually after I get a flu shot, my arm is very sore for about three hours. That’s normal. And two — in just 1 to 3 percent of people the entire body responds, so you can feel funky and get a headache. It’s an inflammatory reaction, and in rare cases can even cause a fever. But that’s all part of the body’s response to the vaccine. It’s not influenza; it’s just your body building up the resistance to it.

But what about people who feel actual symptoms of a cold afterward?

Well, in that case you are likely experiencing symptoms of a different illness, but it’s not a causal relationship. It’s just a coincidence. Think of it this way: Just because the rooster crowed before the dawn doesn’t mean that it caused the dawn. You get what I’m saying?

What do you think of the idea that the flu shot is causing the current influenza outbreak?

That’s a strange, outrageous, and misinformed concept. The injectable vaccine doesn’t contain a live virus, for one thing. But also, the virus has been with us long before the first vaccine was ever created. Nature has created it, and we’re trying to stop it. The vaccine is far from perfect at doing that, but it’s pretty good.

So even though the shot isn’t foolproof, it’s better than nothing?

Of course it’s better than nothing! That’s like saying the natural way to treat appendicitis is just to ride it out. You don’t want to do that, trust me.

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