Opinion

Time to End Expensive, Ineffective Forced Flu Shots

And associated fear-based campaigns that benefit pharmaceutical manufacturers.

By Bill Tieleman 19 Jan 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"Why are we vaccinating so many people in whom we have no proof that it works?" -- Glasgow Dr. Margaret McCartney on flu shots

After the repeatedly failed effectiveness of flu shots, it's time to rein in their expensive use, end mandatory flu shots or use of masks for B.C. health workers and end the fear campaign that benefits pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The facts are that flu shots are remarkably ineffective -- just seven per cent protection last flu season; that influenza deaths are exaggerated; and that forcing doctors, nurses and health care workers to either have the flu shot or wear a mask up to 16 hours a day is counterproductive and creates a false sense of security for patients.

And to be clear -- none of this is remotely in the Jenny McCarthy anti-vaccine conspiracy theory category -- it's based on publicly available scientific research and government statistics.

Gambling with millions

First -- flu shots are a stunningly poor but expensive way to prevent the illness.

Each year is a multi-million-dollar gamble with high odds against correctly guessing which strain will be dominant the following flu season.

And last year's flu shot was a nearly complete bust.

"I would say overall it's signalling no protection," flu expert Dr. Danuta Skowronski from the BC Centre for Disease Control said in January 2015 following release of a Canadian study on the 2014-15 flu shot's lack of effectiveness.

"So probably the most important message to get out now is for high-risk individuals not to count on vaccine to have protected them this season," Skowronski added. "Other backup options should come to the fore because the vaccine protection is so disappointing this year."

The effectiveness of this season's vaccine hasn't been fully measured and fortunately reported flu cases are very low so far.

But it has only reached over 50 per cent once in the past 10 years and last year dropped to a lowest-ever seven per cent.

Would you buy a car or a television that had a 50 per cent chance of working at best and at worst only seven per cent? Not likely, but that isn't stopping the flu shot industry.

Pharmacies are constantly promoting flu shots throughout the winter -- at your expense unless you are in the most vulnerable categories -- which means government pays.

Forced shot 'coercive tool': arbitrator

Fortunately, some common sense has been injected -- by an Ontario arbitrator's decision last year striking down mandatory flu shots or use of masks for health workers in Sault Ste. Marie -- with implications across Canada -- including B.C.

Arbitrator Jim Hayes ruled that a mandatory vaccine-or-mask policy was a "coercive tool" and "unreasonable" based on evidence presented.

"What is extremely clear is that the evidence underpinning an assessment of the burden of disease caused by unvaccinated health care workers has come under heavy criticism from several reputable sources apart from the experts who appeared in this case," Hayes wrote in his 136-page decision. "In my opinion the extremely limited, not to say absolute lack of, assistance of such evidence was demonstrated."

While Saskatchewan announced in reaction that flu shots or masks would be voluntary, B.C. chief medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall refused to back down despite BC Nurses' Union requests to revoke the policy.

It's unlikely the issue will go away as controversy continues.

And now scientists fear repeated vaccination may actually be lowering -- not raising -- the effectiveness of the shots, with the recent Canadian study finding that paradoxically, those who did not have the shot the previous year seemed to have more protection than those who got it both years.

Fear-based advertising

Second -- government and health officials continue to heavily promote getting flu shots through the use of fear mongering by exaggerating the risk of death.

The Public Health Agency of Canada states on its website: "It is estimated that, in a given year, an average of 12,200 hospitalizations related to influenza and approximately 3,500 deaths attributable to influenza occur."

But PHAC also says elsewhere on the same website that in the past four years the range of flu-related reported fatalities was 100 to 600 annually, while hospitalizations ranged from 2,000 to just under 8,000.

And in the 2015-16 season, the number of deaths with statistics to Jan. 9 is 10 while hospitalizations are 201.

PHAC notes "not all provinces and territories participate in reporting" but does not say which don't and shows nine or 10 did most years.

But that reporting is still likely far more accurate than the PHAC estimate of 3,500 deaths a year -- since it was based on a computer "regression modelling" study and not actual cause of death statistics.

"This is a scientific guess. This is not the truth," Dr. Michael Gardam, director of the infection prevention and control unit at Toronto's University Health Network told the CBC in 2012.

Every fatality is a tragedy and clearly high-risk individuals such as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems need to take all precautions -- including the flu shot if recommended by their doctor.

But for government officials to overestimate flu deaths repeatedly as a reason for the shot is inaccurate and misleading.

More research needed: doctor

So why is the flu shot so heavily promoted?

Clearly much of the medical establishment thinks even a very limited effectiveness is worthwhile until a better product can be delivered. And for some patients that may be true so long as other precautions are taken too.

But it's also true that major pharmaceutical companies make millions selling a product that fails to do its advertised job more than half the time, year after year.

That hasn't stopped groups like the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations from taking to social media with infographics promoting flu shots.

Their campaign hasn't convinced Dr. McCartney, who wants to see "randomized controlled trials of the vaccine in healthy over 65s and health care workers, at least" -- and who, like me, does not get an annual flu shot.

"I would have the vaccination if a high-quality trial showed that it was worth it for me or my patients. But flu vaccination is offered millions of times every year at huge opportunity cost; given so much uncertainty, this policy is impossible to justify," Dr. McCartney concludes in an article in the British Medical Journal.

Canadians deserve the full story on flu shots -- and spending massive amounts of public money on ineffective vaccines, while forcing B.C. health workers to have shots or wear masks, is simply dead wrong.  [Tyee]

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