We are a contentious people. Name a topic and you will immediately get two sides. Health care, global warming and evolution are high on the list, but I am convinced that some people would argue against gravity and for a flat earth. Evidence seems to play no role whatsoever to many of these proselytizers.
Now we have a serious health issue, a pandemic of H1N1 or swine flu. As of the time I write, in the United States alone we have had more than 46,000 cases with over 300 deaths. At nearby Cornell University over 500 students have symptoms and one has died from "flu-related complications."
Flu always represents a health risk. Annually between 5% and 20% in this nation suffer from it with over 200,000 hospitalized and 36,000 dying. But this year's additional H1N1 virus is especially threatening because it has some of the characteristics of the 1918 pandemic that killed millions around the world.
Thus everyone should take this disease seriously. We have a tested vaccine becoming available and I encourage every reader to take advantage of it. That is, however, a personal decision. What you should not do is listen to the nonsense about the flu vaccine that is beginning to saturate our media.
Retired family physician and former Air Force flight surgeon Dr. Harriett Hall has written cogently about this issue and I recommend to you her SkepDoc website, which has served as a major resource for this column.
Hall warns that we now have vaccine opponents who "spread old falsehoods, make up new lies, distort the results of studies, misrepresent statistics, and endanger our public health. There are websites and even anti-swine-flu-vaccine rap videos. Press releases, e-mail campaigns, talk shows, and blogs are stirring up irrational fears. These people are irresponsible fearmongers. They are wrong, and they are dangerous." Hall then offers factual responses to many of the flumongers' contentions and I summarize a few here.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disorder, often referred to as an AIDP. It is a rare but serious nerve disease that can cause paralysis, but the majority of patients recover when they receive prompt treatment. In a perfect example of the misapplication of statistical information, flu critics claim that GBS is being caused by flu vaccines. The basis for their claim: a report that identified 54 cases of GBS after vaccination in the U.S. in 2004.
In response to this contention, Hall carefully interprets the statistics: GBS, she notes, already affects 1 to 4 of every 100,000 people. The increased risk from vaccines is "no more than one in a million."
J. B. Grabenstein puts this in a different way: "The risk of GBS after a flu shot pales in comparison to the risk of serious adverse events if infected with the influenza virus: 60 to 70 cases of GBS vs. 20,000 deaths from influenza. Keeping things on the same scale, people over 65 years of age can choose from a risk of one case of GBS per million people or 10,000 cases of hospitalization and 1500 deaths due to influenza."
Flu vaccine opponent Dr. Joseph Mercola argues that squalene, a component of some flu vaccines, caused Gulf War Syndrome in anthrax vaccines. Hall points out that there was no squalene in anthrax vaccine, responds in detail to Mercola's charges and concludes, "There is a large body of data demonstrating the safety of squalene."
Critics also claim that flu vaccine effectiveness is particularly low in the elderly. Hall responds that, although "the elderly are not as well protected by the vaccine: that's why it's so important for younger people to be vaccinated, reducing the prevalence of the disease in the population and thereby reducing the likelihood of the elderly being exposed. In other words, don't just get the flu shot for yourself, get it for Grandma."
My favorite Hall response is also to Mercola, who claims, "Injecting organisms into your body to provoke immunity is contrary to nature." Hall answers: "Nature kills people. Doing something contrary to nature is what medicine is all about. It is a good thing."
These are only a few of Hall's responses. They clearly suggest checking scientific answers to the wild claims that beset us.-- Gerry Rising
Added note: As of October 26, 2009, the official flu totals were: New
York: 2738 cases, 74 deaths; US: 44,555 cases, 1234 deaths; Global:
582,934 cases, 7206 deaths. Access the current count, including
break-downs by state and country, at www.flucount.org.