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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Do Flu Vaccines Matter?

No, according to a number of epidemiology experts who've studied the data. A 2009 Atlantic article reports on the research of Dr. Lisa Jackson who wondered if the flu statistics for the elderly were accurate (50% fewer deaths among the vaccinated). She hypothesized that the reduction in the death rate was due, not to the flu vaccine itself, but to the fact that those who received it were healthier to begin with and less likely to die. Here's what the article reports:
Jackson and three colleagues set out to determine whether the mortality difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated might be caused by a phenomenon known as the “healthy user effect.” They hypothesized that on average, people who get vaccinated are simply healthier than those who don’t, and thus less liable to die over the short term. People who don’t get vaccinated may be bedridden or otherwise too sick to go get a shot. They may also be more likely to succumb to flu or any other illness, because they are generally older and sicker. To test their thesis, Jackson and her colleagues combed through eight years of medical data on more than 72,000 people 65 and older. They looked at who got flu shots and who didn’t. Then they examined which group’s members were more likely to die of any cause when it was not flu season. Jackson’s findings showed that outside of flu season, the baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher than among those who did, lending support to the hypothesis that on average, healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the “frail elderly” didn’t or couldn’t. In fact, the healthy-user effect explained the entire benefit that other researchers were attributing to flu vaccine, suggesting that the vaccine itself might not reduce mortality at all. Jackson’s papers “are beautiful,” says Lone Simonsen, who is a professor of global health at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and an internationally recognized expert in influenza and vaccine epidemiology. “They are classic studies in epidemiology, they are so carefully done.”

The results were also so unexpected that many experts simply refused to believe them. Jackson’s papers were turned down for publication in the top-ranked medical journals. One flu expert who reviewed her studies for the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote, “To accept these results would be to say that the earth is flat!” When the papers were finally published in 2006, in the less prominent International Journal of Epidemiology, they were largely ignored by doctors and public-health officials. “The answer I got,” says Jackson, “was not the right answer.”
Not only were they not the right answer, but they would have a major financial impact on the pharmaceutical firms that produce flu vaccines and the doctors and businesses that sell them. As usual, the answer is follow the money. It's a big motivator even for the ethical and honest.

Another expert, Tom Jefferson, has also questioned the wisdom of flu vaccines:
The most vocal—and undoubtedly most vexing—critic of the gospel of flu vaccine is the Cochrane Collaboration’s Jefferson, who’s also an epidemiologist trained at the famed London School of Tropical Hygiene, and who, in Lisa Jackson’s view, makes other skeptics seem “moderate by comparison.” Among his fellow flu researchers, Jefferson’s outspokenness has made him something of a pariah. At a 2007 meeting on pandemic preparedness at a hotel in Bethesda, Maryland, Jefferson, who’d been invited to speak at the conference, was not greeted by any of the colleagues milling about the lobby. He ate his meals in the hotel restaurant alone, surrounded by scientists chatting amiably at other tables. He shrugs off such treatment. As a medical officer working for the United Nations in 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, he and other peacekeepers were captured and held for more than a month by militiamen brandishing AK-47s and reeking of alcohol. Professional shunning seems trivial by comparison, he says.

“Tom Jefferson has taken a lot of heat just for saying, ‘Here’s the evidence: it’s not very good,’” says Majumdar [a physician and researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada]. “The reaction has been so dogmatic and even hysterical that you’d think he was advocating stealing babies.” Yet while other flu researchers may not like what Jefferson has to say, they cannot ignore the fact that he knows the flu-vaccine literature better than anyone else on the planet. He leads an international team of researchers who have combed through hundreds of flu-vaccine studies. The vast majority of the studies were deeply flawed, says Jefferson. “Rubbish is not a scientific term, but I think it’s the term that applies.” Only four studies were properly designed to pin down the effectiveness of flu vaccine, he says, and two of those showed that it might be effective in certain groups of patients, such as school-age children with no underlying health issues like asthma. The other two showed equivocal results or no benefit.
And, in fact, the very populations that are recommended for it are the least likely to be helped, those with compromised immune systems. Healthy individuals respond to the vaccine by creating antibodies like mad; those whose immune systems don't work well get little benefit leading Jefferson to ask, "Is vaccine necessary for those in whom it is effective, namely the young and healthy? Conversely, is it effective in those for whom it seems to be necessary, namely the old, the very young, and the infirm?" He's recommended a placebo trial in the elderly which some researchers consider "unethical." His response: "We have built huge, population-based policies on the flimsiest of scientific evidence. The most unethical thing to do is to carry on business as usual.”

As for me, I don't get flu shots and don't plan to. I think a better strategy is doubling my dose of Vitamin D3 (I get blood tests twice a year to test the level.) which is a big immune system booster. And for an anecdotal demonstration, one of my sons and his wife started using it this year for their family and it's the first good winter they've had in years. Since several of their children are prone to asthma, it's no small thing to reduce upper respiratory illnesses! A side benefit for me is that I'm not getting my winter eczema any more. For a medical discussion on Vitamin D3 visit go here.


Anonymous said...

I am a senior who has never gotten a flu shot, and I hardly ever get it or colds and then mildly. I use vitamins, calcium with D on a regular basis for other things, and Zicam spray (which has zinc) to keep it and colds away when I first feel as though I am coming down with anything. One needs to be careful with the Zicam,though, as using too much can ruin your sense of smell. I only use it about twice a day in the beginning and stop when the symptoms are gone. I have heard zinc tablets are very effective, and probably safer, and Airborn too. I am not against vaccinations for certain things, but I think Americans are encouraged far too often to use them for unnecessary things. Also, avoid receiving any vacinations using embrionic material from aborted children.

Ray Schneider said...

Unfortunately I think this exposes a serious problem in scientific ethics or lack thereof. Scientific results have economic consequences and sometimes substantial ones. The unscrupulous attempt to maneuver the science for economic gain and this is despicable, but not at all uncommon.

The whole global warming brouhaha is an example. But it's only the tip of a huge iceberg that extends throughout science. As long as truth is subordinated to economic gain we will have people curving the results and doing agenda driven "science".

The medical profession is just one of many professions that are prone to bad science for economic motives. It also extends to engineering and other technologies as well as just the conventional wisdom challenging results that fly in the face of established doctrine. Sea floor spreading took a long time to be accepted and its earliest proponents were laughed at and ridiculed.

One of the worst mixtures is big government and big corporations in collusion to make profits out of questionable science. But there's also the flip side which is fad pseudo-science. The diet world is full of it and you have to watch out for the myths in the food additives, vitamins, minerals and supplements world.

The most difficult sciences of all are the life sciences where the system under study is so complex that the findings themselves are often difficult to interpret. You just can't control for all the variables.