Australian media hypes child flu risks, hides flu vaccine risks

“My little girl nearly died from the flu: Jab recommended for kids,” read the headline yesterday in a harrowing story about three-year-old Rosie Baxter, who came down with the flu in 2013.

The article by Kate Calacoura of news.com.au, Australia’s leading news site, was all melodrama, stressing how deadly the flu can be, reminding readers that 50 million people worldwide died from a killer strain in 1918, warning that the “flu can affect 40% to 50% of kids and toddlers, and they get really sick” and describing the flu vaccine as “absolutely safe” even though “no vaccine will be absolutely perfect.”DSC02776-B

In this story, which reads as if it was drafted in the public relations offices of the flu vaccine makers, not one word was mentioned of the harrowing damage that the flu vaccine can cause. Calacoura and news.com.ca could hardly have been unaware of such harm — it became a major story in Australia and New Zealand in 2010.

Two vaccines produced by Australia’s CSL Biotherapies, one of the world’s largest influenza vaccine manufacturers, triggered 1,700 alarming results — febrile convulsions, high fevers, and vomiting – mostly in the small children Calacoura’s article stressed should be inoculated. A child often loses consciousness and shakes during a febrile convulsion, generally for a minute or two, sometimes for longer than 15 minutes. Those under three years of age especially were hard hit — CSL’s Fluvax Junior vaccine sent 4% of these infants into febrile convulsions, its Fluvax vaccine 5%.

The flu vaccine can be accurately described in many ways — “absolutely safe” is not one of them. Rosie Baxter, Calacoura’s poster child for the flu vaccine, luckily pulled through. Saba Button, an 11-month-old who received Fluvax in 2010, wasn’t so lucky. She suffered permanent brain damage that will leave her a paraplegic for the rest of her life, which is expected to be shortened as a result of the vaccine. That her parents successfully sued CSL, and last year received a settlement estimated in the millions of dollars to provide Saba with the therapy and equipment she needs provides them with small consolation.

Calacoura’s article states that the flu vaccine now being rushed onto the market for Australia’s 2015 flu season will be especially beneficial because “for the first time, a flu vaccine will include the four most likely strains of the flu to circulate this season.” Perhaps, but this novel cocktail of flu strains will also be inherently risky because it can’t be tested — by the time the tests would have been completed, the flu season would have been over. As Ian Barr, the deputy director of WHO’s influenza research laboratory in Melbourne told The Australian in 2011, “It’s just not possible because this is more or less a just-in-time vaccine.”

Our rating

Kate Calacoura (@KateCalacouras) and news.com.au (@newscomauHQ) get four Band-Aids for producing a misleading, emotive article bereft of objectivity, and oddly reliant on a two-year-old example of harm to a child. The press places a high premium on current events, suggesting either that Calacoura couldn’t find more recent examples of children at serious risk from the flu or that rushing this article into print trumped usual journalistic criteria for newsworthiness. Neither explanation speaks well of her or her employer.

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