http://network.nationalpost.com — I think the time has come to panic. But not about catching the H1N1 “swine flu.” And not about the alleged risks of the vaccine that can protect against it. For the vast majority of people, the flu will mean no more than a week or so of misery, not different from previous versions. As far as the risk of the vaccine goes, it’s minimal. However, there is something to panic about: the stunning amount of misinformation being bandied about.
I freely admit to not having expertise in this complex area, but I think I do have expertise in judging who does. And that would be the scientists at Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the World Health Organization, Health Canada and major universities. These immunologists, virologists, toxicologists and epidemiologists spend their lives researching and evaluating vaccines. I trust their opinion, which is based on experimental evidence, over that of naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors and various graduates of the University of Google, for whom evidence-based medicine is a foreign concept.
No rational person with a plumbing or electrical problem would seek help from a former Playboy centrefold, a comedian who specializes in facial contortions or a retired neurosurgeon. We would seek out a licensed plumber or an electrician. Yet when it comes to immunology, a field more complex than plumbing or wiring, many see no conundrum in being swayed by the rhetoric of Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey or Dr. Russell Blaylock, none of whom are immunologists.
Unfortunately, the lay press often presents the pro and con arguments about vaccines as if they had equal weight. They do not. The vast majority of knowledgeable scientists recognize vaccination as one of the greatest advances in the history of public health, while at the same time being fully aware that there are some risks. The point, though, is that they judge these risks to be significantly outweighed by the benefits. On the other hand, the very loud and often verbally abusive anti-vaccine minority greatly exaggerates the risks and minimizes the benefits. Unfortunately emotion often trumps science. And conspiracy theories can be seductive.
One of the most convoluted tales is spun by Australian “investigative journalist” Jane Burgermeister. She contends that the H1N1 virus was genetically engineered and released by pharmaceutical companies so that they could then reap the profits from marketing vaccines. That claim almost sounds reasonable when compared with her other allegation that there is “evidence that an international corporate syndicate, which has annexed high government office inside the United States, is intent on carrying out a mass genocide using an artificial (genetic) flu pandemic virus and a forced vaccination program.” What possible reason can there be for decimating the public in this fashion? “To transfer control of the United States to the World Health Organization, the UN and affiliated security forces.”
No, the H1N1 virus was not engineered by Big Pharma for financial gain. Nor is there any attempt to “cull” the population by the American government, and there is no callous disregard for public health by releasing an untested vaccine.
Of course when it comes to a new vaccine, there can be no guarantee of 100% safety. But there has been adequate testing of this vaccine, which is produced the exact same way that seasonal flu vaccines have been produced for decades. Over 10 million doses of the 2009 H1N1 vaccine have already been administered with no more than the usual minor side effects.
One of the noisiest anti-vaccinationists is former neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock. Some of his allegations about vaccines can be instantly shown to be wrong. For example, contrary to his charges, there never has been any squalene adjuvant in any U.S. vaccine. Adjuvants are added to increase the efficiency of the body’s reaction to the active ingredients in a vaccine, so that a smaller amount of vaccine goes a longer way. In any case, Squalene has been used in Europe and Canada for years without any problems being reported.
Any time vaccination is mentioned, the issue of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines, also rears its head. Numerous studies have investigated the allegation that mercury in vaccines is linked to developmental problems such as autism. No such connection has been found. One of the best studies was carried out by McGill researchers who surveyed almost 28,000 children born between 1987 and 1998, a period when thimerosal was widely used. There was no link with autism or any other developmental disorder. Another study at the University of California looked at 452 children aged two to five, who were either developing normally or had developmental problems such as autism spectrum disorder. There were no differences in blood mercury levels between autistic children and children with normal development.
Russell Blaylock promotes vitamin D as a weapon against the flu. Vitamin D does play a role in immune function. But catching the flu is not a sign of immune deficiency. And the most recent double-blind study, carried out with 162 adults taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily during the flu season, showed no benefit in decreasing the incidence or severity of upper respiratory tract infections. Of course good nutrition is important for bolstering immune function, and taking a vitamin D supplement is a good idea for various reasons, even if it doesn’t play a critical role in protection against viral diseases. However, there is no evidentiary basis to suggest, as Blaylock does, that fish oil or antioxidants help with H1N1.
The anti-vaccine crowd commonly brings up the possible link between vaccines and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare but potentially dangerous neurological disease. That possible connection arose in 1976 when 48 million Americans were inoculated against the swine flu and 532 developed Guillain-Barré. That means roughly 10 cases per million vaccinated. No such relationship has been found with any vaccine since that time, suggesting that there was a problem with that specific vaccine, perhaps bacterial contamination. But here is the important statistic. The flu itself can cause Guillain-Barré — somewhere between 40 and 70 cases for every million people who get come down with influenza. In other words, the risk of getting Guillain-Barré from the flu is 40 times greater than the risk of getting it from the vaccine.
Life offers us no guarantees — except death. Everything comes down to a risk-benefit analysis. And I choose to carry out that analysis based on evidence-based science and expert opinion rather than on the unsubstantiated blather of conspiracy theorists. So I’ll be rolling up my sleeve for the H1N1 vaccine, as will my wife, children and grandchildren.
Joe Schwarcz is director, McGill University Office for Science and Society.