Opinion

Are Flu Shots as Effective as Billed?

Vaccines provide 'moderate' protection,' studies show. So why are they pushed on the public?

By Bill Tieleman 2 Dec 2014 | 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.

"Scaring people justifies evidence-free policies." -- Dr. Tom Jefferson, Cochrane Respiratory Infections Group, on overstating flu deaths

As British Columbians are encouraged, pushed and sometimes threatened in order to get a flu shot, there are increasing questions about its effectiveness and whether the vaccine is necessary -- or if flu deaths are as bad as claimed.

However, these uncomfortable truths are barely being heard amidst the overwhelming and persistent health establishment claims that the flu shot is needed and effective at saving lives.

"Between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians can die of influenza and its complications annually, depending on the severity of the season," Immunize Canada says on its website. It's a coalition of pharmaceutical companies that produce vaccines, health organizations and charities.

And federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in a Nov. 7 news release that the flu is "associated" with 3,500 deaths in Canada annually on average.

But is all this even true? Consider these important and contrary facts that are not well reported:

A U.S. National Vital Statistics study found that in 2010 just 500 people's deaths could be directly attributed to the flu.

Meanwhile, a new study published in November by The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that flu shots provided only "moderate" protection rates of 49 per cent in the 2012-13 flu season.

The study also suggested that the flu vaccine did not significantly protect against Influenza A H3N2 -- one of three influenza viruses included in this year's flu shot -- in children ages nine through 17, a finding that puzzled the authors.

And another University of Minnesota study -- with an admittedly small sample -- says the overall effectiveness of flu shots in 2012-13 was found to be just 32 per cent -- a far cry from the still modest 59 per cent rate claimed last year in Canada.

That study also "yielded more evidence that getting a flu shot two years in a row may result in lower vaccine effectiveness in the second year, and also that the effects of a flu shot may last more than one season."

Elderly most vulnerable

And a study quoted in The Lancet Infectious Diseases found almost 90 per cent of flu deaths occur among the elderly population. It also notes that the seniors who get the flu shot are only 28 per cent to 58 per cent less likely to get the illness.

Yet as of Dec. 1, all frontline health care workers in B.C. -- and hospital visitors -- are forced to either get a flu shot or wear a mask in hospitals, care homes and other facilities. B.C. is the only province to demand such a choice but others are eager to follow.

If the effectiveness of flu shots is so low that only one in two or less who get it are protected from the flu, it means patients, healthcare workers and others will have a false sense of security.

Yet the odds are 50-50 that your doctor, nurse, care aide, cleaner or visitor who got the flu shot is still vulnerable to the illness. If a patient sees 10 people a day in hospital, the likelihood is that five could still get the flu even if all had the shot.

It's one reason why a top Canadian infection control expert now argues against -- not for -- mandatory flu shots for health care workers.

"A few years ago, I was also for mandatory flu shots [for health-care workers]," Dr. Michael Gardam told The Globe and Mail newspaper in October.

"Then what happened is I started reading and I started going back to the original studies. I don't feel that I can sugar-coat those any more," said Gardam, who is director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto.

The Globe says another physician points out that some of the loudest medical voices arguing for mandatory flu shots have received research and other funding from vaccine companies. But that doctor was too concerned about backlash to be publicly identified.

Mandatory shots or masks

Yet B.C. forced health care workers to either get the shot or wear a mask for their entire shift -- something few can handle for four months -- and a union grievance opposing mandatory measures was lost in arbitration, giving workers no choice.

And while the side effects of the flu shot are said to be minimal and not seriously harmful, there are disturbing incidents that have not been reported widely.

For example, last month Italy suspended use of two batches of Fluad influenza vaccine produced by giant pharmaceutical company Novartis after 11 people died this year shortly after receiving the shot.

It's important to understand that Novartis says that "no causal relationship" has been found between the vaccine and the deaths and that a review of the two batches "has confirmed that they are in conformity with all production and quality standards."

The Italian Pharmaceutical Agency said in a statement that: "At the moment it's not possible to confirm that there is a direct link between taking the vaccine and the reported deaths. More complete information is necessary and a thorough analysis of the cases must be conducted."

Novartis was expected to deliver 850,000 flu shot doses in Canada this year and no issues have been raised with their quality.

I have argued previously that the flu shot is being oversold while under-performing and all these new studies and information add further evidence.

The contradiction between what the public is being told by health authorities and the very different conclusions in some studies are at least confusing if not downright concerning.

The flu can indeed be deadly for the vulnerable -- and prevention may be the best course for some.

But if you are thinking of getting a flu shot, get all the facts first.  [Tyee]

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