Flu vaccines: Swallowing hype down under

Travel and lifestyle writer Leah McLennan of the Australian Associated Press was out of her depth in What’s new in 2015 flu vaccine?, a feature that ran on Australia’s leading news site, news.com.au. She should have known better than to accept at face value information offered by official parties in the vaccine debate.

McLennan wrote: “Australian Medical Association’s spokesman on general practice, Dr Brian Morton, says vaccination is still the single most effective way of reducing the chances of getting seriously ill from the flu.

“’But the majority of the community don’t have the vaccine so it’s likely to be a bad winter, mirroring that which happened in the US and Europe,’ he said.”

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Morton should have been challenged on several grounds, not least “that which happened in the US and Europe.” The flu vaccine was a flop in the northern hemisphere this last winter. According to the CDC, the vaccine’s effectiveness against all flu viruses was a paltry 19%. “In practical terms, this means the flu vaccine reduced a person’s risk of having to seek medical care at a doctor’s office for flu illness by 19%,” the CDC explained. The flu vaccine’s effectiveness in Canada and Europe was likewise dismal.

Why so poor a performance? The answer may lie, at least in part, in studies that show the flu vaccine dramatically increases the chance of catching the flu in subsequent years. As Canada’s Broadcasting Corporation reported earlier this year, researchers to their surprise found “seasonal flu vaccination almost doubled the risk of infection with pandemic flu.”

Why does the flu vaccine make people more susceptible to the flu? As CBC reported in an article entitled Flu vaccine paradox adds to public health debate:

“People do not have a good explanation for why,” said Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network. “The idea basically is that your immune system is occupied elsewhere. It would be like getting the swirling ball of death on your Mac where your operating system is doing something else rather than opening the file.”

The findings in Canada are hardly unique. Studies in the U.S., Hong Kong and Japan point to the same phenomenon. Concludes Canada’s Gardam: “We have kind of hyped this vaccine so much for so long we are starting to believe our own hype.”

Australia’s Dr. Morton evidently still believes his own hype. The job of reporters such as McLennan is to cut through the hype. That she did not do.

In her interviews with other official spokesmen, McLennan also did not question the hype that “About 3,000 Australians die every year, either directly from the seasonal flu, complications due to the flu, or pneumonia.” In fact, very few of those deaths have anything to do with the flu — they are pneumonia deaths stemming from dozens of causes that the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not attribute to the flu. In 2012, for example, the country’s official statistics recorded 2,719 registered deaths due to influenza and pneumonia, of which 2,567 deaths were caused by pneumonia and just 152 were caused by the flu.

Our rating

Leah McLennan (@LeahMcLennan), her employer, the Australian Associated Press, and news.com.au each get three Band-Aids for failing to corroborate explanations from official spokesmen that amounted to little more than public relations spin or, as put by Canada’s Gardham, hype.

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Comments

  1. Timelord says:

    The Australian flu vaccine is not the same. It may surprise you to know that we can actually create our own vaccines, and learn from any errors from the northern hemisphere. So don’t make any statements before checking the facts, which I’m sure Leah did. I’m getting the flu shot when the free government version is released.

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  2. I agree that Australia did respond to the 2010 incident eventually. However, you can’t have a vaccine debate in Australia, the media prints virtually nothing on vaccine injury. Few doctors acknowledge vaccine injury and fail to report it. Gardasil safety is being questioned by European countries and Japan – yet nothing is being said in Ozzie press.

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    • Timelord says:

      That’s because we know nothing has been proven medically. Our press is far better at this than any other country that tends to print speculation without thinking. Speculation is dangerous and should not be printed. By the way, the response I noted above started with an instant action (not “eventually”) as the batch that was the problem was withdrawn quick smart. A full investigation is always going to take time – you never cut corners with that sort of thing.

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  3. See http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/virus-in-the-system/story-e6frg8h6-1226063484330 article
    “Professor Bryant Stokes, the eminent neurosurgeon and former head of WA Health who reviewed the events for the state’s health minister, concluded in a report tabled in the WA Parliament last August that the “slow response” by federal and state authorities had “not served the public well”. It was “disturbing”, he noted, that Australia had not put in place the surveillance and reporting systems recommended by the World Health Organisation, which had advised all countries in August 2009 to “conduct intensive monitoring for safety and efficacy” of the pandemic vaccine, Panvax.”

    Problem with the reporting system prompted the use of the word “eventually”.

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