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Swine flu hysteria

Posted by medconsumers on December 4, 2009

So far the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, has been extremely contagious but mild to moderate in severity. About 9,820 Americans have died from swine flu since it emerged in April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC and the World Health Organization estimate that the swine flu may have already peaked in the U.S. But some experts point out that the flu season usually starts in December, therefore another peak would be expected in early 2010. By these estimates, I figure that the 2009-2010 flu season is still not likely to become the pandemic it was heralded to be. Think of it this way, even if the second peak doubles the number of deaths, the total would be lower than the CDC-estimated number of deaths (36,000) in any given flu season. As observed in our September 2009 article, the H1N1 virus appears to be just another seasonal flu, see “Why the Swine Flu is Not a Major Threat.”

The media kicked off the season with the usual fear-mongering that focused on the deaths or near-deaths of healthy young people. 60 Minutes provided the prime example of flu reporting at its worst. It focused on one healthy teenager who became desperately ill with the swine flu, which landed him in the intensive care unit. A news show of this caliber would be expected to let us know who is most likely to die (this teenager did not) and how many deaths occur in those hospitalized with swine flu. In other words, provide a context for this one case.

It wasn’t like a context was unavailable. A “window” on what was to come appeared in the October 2009 Online First version of The New England Journal of Medicine. In the early phase of the swine flu “pandemic,” a research team reviewed the medical records of 272 people hospitalized in the U.S. between April and June 2009. All had tested positive for swine flu. Here’s the finding that 60 Minutes might have included in its reporting, 7% of the people in this study died and nearly half were children. Almost three-fourths of all who died had at least one underlying medical condition, primarily asthma; diabetes; heart, lung, and neurologic diseases; and pregnancy. 60 Minutes might have compared these findings to what happens in a normal flu season when 90% of the deaths occur in people over the age of 65, mostly in those with serious underlying medical conditions.

To its credit, 60 Minutes started the story this way: “99% of people with H1N1 virus, it’s just the flu…a few miserable days at home.” Funny, I didn’t remember hearing this until I saw the show over again on the 60 Minutes Web site while writing this article. Unfortunately, the camera focus on a young man struggling for his life with terrified parents at his side totally overwhelmed the fact that this might be the fate of 1% of the people who contract the H1N1 virus and a tiny fraction of 1% of the entire U.S. population. The tragic deaths of healthy young people would be rarer yet. As of December 10, the CDC estimates that there were 1,100 deaths in children under the age of 18, two-thirds of them had an underlying medical condtion, mainly asthma, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the media is doing the CDC’s bidding by encouraging panic so we’ll all rush off and line up for the swine flu vaccine. After all, the federal government paid for these vaccines and would not want to see them go to waste, nor would the CDC want the public to lose faith in vaccines. Maybe this was all a trial run in the event of a real pandemic. Many who lined up for the vaccine were elderly people, usually the priority group, now told to get to the proverbial back of the line.

As time went on, we learned that everyone born before 1957 has natural immunity so they don’t need the vaccine. This is a startling public health about-face. Haven’t we always been told that vaccines are equal to or better than natural immunity—that is, getting the flu naturally? “It is a false assumption that the vaccine provides similar immunity to the natural infection. We have evidence that the natural infection provides long-term immunity for more than 50 years. We don’t know how long the vaccine-induced immunity lasts, but estimates are two to three years at best,” explained researcher, Jim Wright, MD, in response to an e-mail inquiry.

Dr. Wright, based at the University of British Columbia, co-authored a recent letter to the editor of the British Medical Journal in which he called attention to the need for a randomized trial to determine whether vaccines are actually effective for both the H1N1 virus and the seasonal flu. Some of us in the U.S. would like to know why the seasonal flu death rate has remained unchanged in the last 20 years, despite the fact that there was a steady increase in the number of people vaccinated during that time. Even the CDC is tacitly admitting the lack of progress with its 36,000 annual flu deaths statistic that hasn’t changed in years.

There are plans to form a panel of experts from outside the government to watch for any rare or unexpected side effects in the millions of Americans who were vaccinated in the last three months. But that’s not all I want verified. I’d like to know whether we were getting an honest assessment of the threat level of the swine flu. And was it worth spending the billion dollars that the U.S. government put into the production of these vaccines, or are there better ways to spend the taxpayers’ health dollars? Most of all, I want to know whether the H1N1 vaccines were effective in preventing death and hospitalization, especially in young people. When I directed these concerns to the CDC, a spokesman told me no decision has been made to study these issues.

For more information
Read this about the World Health Organization and the investigation of the gross conflict of interest of its expert on the H1N1 virus. And this on the home front: “Advisers on vaccines often have conflicts, report says.”

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers©

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