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Swine Flu Madness

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It is quite troubling to witness the hysterical reactions to the H1N1 "pandemic". Some are more than ready to roll up their sleeves for a largely untested vaccine containing frightening ingredients like mercury, formaldehyde and squalene. Some even fear the vaccine is actually a plot to cull the human herd by 80%. As usual the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes of misplaced trust and paranoia. Let me lay down the cold hard scientific truth for you in the least boring way I can muster. The idea behind vaccines seems straightforward enough. When you get the flu your body produces antibodies to fight it. So if a dead flu virus is injected into your body, your body's immune system will produce antibodies to it without you getting sick and you won't get that strain of flu later on. The problem is that those with impaired immune systems, those that need the vaccine the most, do not respond well to vaccines because, well, their immune systems don't work as well. People with strong immune systems, on the other hand, will be able to fight off the flu themselves without needing a vaccine. Surely this simplistic common sense approach is refuted by the massive scientific support for flu vaccine effectiveness.

The sad fact though, is that there is virtually no conclusive evidence that flu vaccines are effective at preventing the flu. A recent article in the magazine, The Atlantic explains why. The belief that flu vaccines are effective comes from cohort studies. These cohort studies examine the death rates in large groups of people that choose to get vaccinated with death rates in groups that don't. The problem is that cohort studies are extremely susceptible to bias. Confounding factors like education, lifestyle and income can influence the results in a major way. In 2006 Dr. Lisa Jackson published a study in International Journal of Epidemiology to test her hypothesis that those who choose to get vaccinated tend to be younger and healthier. Her study showed that outside the flu season, people that don't get vaccinated still have a 60% higher death rate over those that do. This study clearly shows that confounding factors explain the mortality differences and not vaccine effectiveness. In other words, there is no evidence then that flu vaccines do anything but increase the profits of mega pharmaceutical companies.

The Atlantic article also notes that in 2004 there was a 40% drop in flu vaccine production rates yet mortality rates did not increase. In 1968 and 1997 the wrong flu vaccine was distributed and again there was no mortality increase. Dr. Sumit Majumdar of the University of Alberta notes that despite the dramatic increase in vaccination rates of the elderly there has been no decline in mortality rates. The Cochrane Collaboration's Tom Jefferson has extensively examined all flu vaccine studies and notes that almost all these studies were deeply flawed. Of the only four studies he found to be properly designed, only two showed any benefit and only in certain groups such as school children with no underlying health issues. As Jefferson rightly explains, the only way to conclusively determine if flu vaccines work is to perform large scale randomized placebo-controlled trial studies. Such studies involve randomly giving half the test subjects vaccine and the other half a placebo. The usual hysterical reaction to this is that it would be highly unethical to conclusively prove a treatment works because you would deny the treatment to those that need it. Unethical? Basing large scale health initiatives on highly unsound pseudo-science and circular logic is monstrously unethical. Clearly in the business of politics rational objectivity, sound science and ethics mean little.


Does the Vaccine Matter?, November 2009 The Atlantic.


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Michael Fullerton
BSc. Psychology/Computer Science

The men that American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest the most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. -- H L Mencken
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