Value of flu-vaccine alternatives is questioned

Options: The shortage of shots has driven more people to herbal and homeopathic medicines, though scientists look askance at them.

Medicine & Science

October 18, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Looking for an alternative to the flu shot?

As vaccine stocks dwindle, there are hints that people are turning to herbal, homeopathic and other alternative remedies.

Oscillococcinum, an alternative flu remedy made by the Boiron Group of France, bolted to the top of Drugstore.com's sales chart soon after the vaccine shortage was announced, company officials say. Vitacost.com, an online vitamin and supplement retailer, briefly sold out of its oscillococcinum supply. "There was a big spike," says president Allen Josephs.

But a growing body of evidence calls into question claims that oscillococcinum and other well-known alternative medicines can block the influenza virus or blunt its effects. The same holds true of compounds aimed at the common cold.

Oscillococcinum (pronounced "o-sill-o-cox-see-num") is an example of medicines used in homeopathy, a 200-year-old therapeutic system that treats ailments with substances that produce similar symptoms.

Known as the "principle of similars," the philosophy "is extremely controversial," according to Dr. Adrian S. Dobs, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. One homeopathic allergy remedy, for example, is made from the red onion, the reasoning being that onions and allergens produce runny noses and watery eyes.

Oscillococcinum is derived from the heart and liver of the Muscovy duck, which are considered reservoirs of the influenza virus. But Andrew Vickers, a biostatistician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, recently analyzed all placebo-controlled studies of oscillococcinum and found no evidence that it can prevent influenza infection.

"It certainly should not be taken in place of the flu vaccine," says Vickers.

Vickers did find that the compound slightly decreased the duration of the illness - by six hours. But even this modest effect seemed statistically suspect because of the small size of the studies he reviewed, he noted.

Another popular flu and cold therapy is echinacea, a North American wildflower first tapped as a curative by Native Americans.

But Dr. Ronald Turner, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Virginia, has just completed a major NIH-funded study of echinacea and found the herb has no impact on the cold virus. The results will be presented at an American Society for Microbiology conference this month. Turner says that research on other alternative cold and flu therapies - from zinc to vitamin C - are inconclusive at best.

The only proven alternatives to the scarce flu vaccine are antiviral drugs, says Dr. Trish Perl, a Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist.

Four prescription antiviral medications are on the market: amantadine (Symmetrel), rimantadine (Flumadine), zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). While they aren't as well known as some herbal nostrums, these antiviral drugs can prevent influenza in the short term and significantly shorten the duration of the disease if taken within 48 hours of infection. But they're not a perfect substitute for the vaccine, says Perl.

Symmetrel and Flumadine, oldest of the four antivirals, are only effective against type A influenza and have side effects that can include nervousness, anxiety, lightheadedness, nausea and diarrhea.

Tamiflu and Relenza are effective against both common virus types, influenza A and B. But the drugs aren't as effective as the vaccine, which is custom-tuned each year to provide the broadest protection, Perl said.

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