The worldwide hysteria over H1N1 influenza, also known as swine flu, pushed millions of people into the dripping blade of the vaccination needle this month. Reports of sickness and death made the vaccine seem like the great savior.
Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated event occurred in Japan that was treated by the worldwide media as a harmless joke, a bit of entertainment, to be met with a smile by people everywhere: On October 22, Microsoft combined with Burger King to unveil the Windows 7 Whopper – seven layers of hamburger patties between two buns. The beast contains 2,000 calories and more than 150 grams of fat. CNN broadcasted light-hearted reports of the stunt as Microsoft’s way of gaining favor with the public. As the reporter prattled on, the camera showed young Japanese customers straining to get what looked like a small building into their mouths.
What possible links could exist between the H1N1 flu, the vaccine, the hysteria, the media, and the Windows 7 Whopper? you may ask. And what about those heretical scientists and medical doctors, who – backed by all that inconvenient scientific evidence – insist that the vaccine may be more dangerous than illness itself? Stand by. We’ll connect the dots as we go.
Swine Flu: A Real But Manageable Danger
There’s no question that influenza is a deadly disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 500,000 people worldwide die each year from the flu. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) puts the number of U.S. flu-related deaths at approximately 36,000.
Of course, millions more contract the flu. Virtually all of us have had it, and most of us have had it more than once. Those who are afflicted typically stay at home, suffer the symptoms, rest in bed, and drink plenty of liquids. After a few days of rest, perhaps a week, the vast majority of us are back in the pink and working again.
In fact, if there is a lesson to be learned from our experience with the flu, it is this: People with relatively normal immune systems – in other words, the vast majority of those alive today – are adequately protected against the more extreme dangers from the illness.
Most people contract the flu during what has become known as “flu season,” meaning the colder months from November to March.
Flu season is the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere – it occurs from April through August — which is important because countries like Australia have already been through the worst of the season. The experience of our Southern neighbors can tell us a lot about the relative dangers of swine flu.
In fact, Australian health officials have reported that the H1N1 experience wasn’t nearly as bad as the standard flu. When all the statistics are in, Australian health officials predict that the H1N1 flu will be responsible for about 1,000 deaths, which is fewer than the average flu-related mortality of 1,500 to 3,000, according to a report published this week in the November 2009 issue of the The Atlantic Monthly, which is hitting newsstands now.
This should not come as much of a surprise. So far, the American and European experience with H1N1 matches the Australian, namely, that the symptoms associated with the swine flu are mild and essentially manageable.
Nevertheless, Western governments are pushing their citizenry to be inoculated against the virus en masse. The U.S. CDC estimates that more than 159 million Americans will receive the H1N1 vaccine. Canada is pushing for universal compliance, meaning all Canadian citizens will be inoculated against the swine flu. British and European governments are pushing the vaccine on their respective populations, as well.
But Does The Vaccine Protect?
Those who are most at risk, health officials agree, are the very young, people with heart disease and diabetes, pregnant women, and the elderly. All of these groups are more vulnerable because of their relatively weak immune systems, which explains part of the emphasis on the flu vaccine. However, there still remains the middle demographic – all those people between, say, 15 and 64 – who are relatively healthy, strong, and still resistant to disease.
The argument for promoting – perhaps insisting is a better word – the vaccine in the relatively healthy is that the vaccine is believed to reduce the incidence of the flu. But is that true?
For decades, researchers assumed that the flu vaccines prevented both the incidence of flu and flu-related deaths in both the young, middle-aged, and elderly. However, recently researchers have gone back and re-examined the evidence that appeared to support that belief. Also, new research has emerged that casts light on the old assumptions. And as one researcher told The New York Times (September 2, 2008), “The whole notion of who needs the vaccine and why is changing before our eyes.”
A study published in the August 2008 edition of the medical journal, The Lancet, called into question the effectiveness of the vaccines for both the young and healthy, as well as the elderly. The Lancet paper showed that healthy people tend to be inoculated against the flu, while frail elderly – who are far closer to death — avoid the shots and suffer a higher mortality rate. But just because more elderly die, and the healthy young survive, does not prove that the vaccines are protective against the flu, the researchers showed.
In fact, researchers are now concluding that the studies were so poorly designed that they couldn’t possibly reveal whether or not the vaccine was effective at all.
The 2008 Lancet review followed an earlier study, also published in the Lancet (February 26, 2005), done by Tom Jefferson, M.D. and his colleagues at the Cochrone Collaboration. Jefferson’s group examined a thousand studies and concentrated on 14 of the very best experiments to discover if there was any proven effectiveness for the flu vaccine. Dr. Jefferson looked closely at the incidences and death rates for both the young and the elderly, yet neither group showed a health benefit as a consequence of taking the vaccine.
“We recorded no convincing evidence that vaccines can reduce mortality,