One Flu Over the Piggies’ Nest: another vaccine melodrama?
Vaccination, media coverage and social and health consequences: here we go again?
This morning a paper was published which suggests there may be a link between one of the pandemic H1N1 swine flu vaccines and narcolepsy diagnosis in children; it’s covered by Channel Four News (more links as I get them).
Narcolepsy is probably best known from comedies in which the character falls asleep at a moments notice, but in reality, of course, it’s a distressing and debilitating condition.
Coverage I have seen so far says that the authors of the paper have been careful to identify the limitations of their research. The research demonstrates a correlation not a cause, it’s a small sample group (n = 75 with 11 having had the Pandremix vaccine), any mechanisms are not understood and it’s not known if the patients would have been diagnosed with narcolepsy regardless of the vaccine. In short: more research required.
They also clearly state that this research is into the vaccine produced for the swine flu pandemic in 2009, and does not pertain to the seasonal flu vaccine.
The problem is that these limitations won’t stop people who are opposed to vaccination from using this as evidence supporting their position.
So my predictions for this vaccine scare:
- At least one organisation opposed to vaccines will put out press releases using this to support their position.
- Press releases will misrepresent the nature of the study, the conclusions and the implications for vaccination programs. They will invoke the precautionary principle suggesting that anything more than zero guaranteed risk is too much risk.
- The anti-vaccine organisations will use stories about harms to further sensationalise the story, making it highly attractive to media outlets.
- The mainstream press outlets will frame these extreme and inaccurate readings as providing balance to their coverage. The tabloid end of the market will use it to generate scary headlines.
- The people countering the anti-vaccine lobby will be ineffective and, by arguing details, look as if they are being petty and technical (despite the entire thing being a details-oriented and technical debate), further damaging their reputation.
- The people responsible for the seasonal flu program will find that uptake this year is much lower than predicted. Research will show this is because people were concerned about flu vaccination in general.
- When a dangerous pandemic flu does emerge, vaccination rates will be even lower.
- More people – especially those who cannot have the jab or those in whom it is ineffective – will have flu, be affected by serious secondary infection such a pneumonia and will die.
How do we counter this?
- There needs to be urgent, clear and sympathetic messaging from both experts and advocacy groups which state unequivocally that flu vaccination is very safe.
- These stories need to be accompanied by stories about real people who might die if the people around them aren’t vaccinated. Think about people with primary immune deficiencies in whom the vaccine doesn’t work.
- People talking to the media need to defend their position without repeating myths from the opposition; repeating myths simply reinforces them. Simply counter claims with clearly stated facts which are framed for non-experts: compare risks to every day activities rather than using numbers (eg. more likely to die in a car accident).
- Media: don’t buy into this balance argument. It’s not balanced if it legitimises killing people.
- Lay educators (by which I mean, people with knowledge who are in the community and talk to people issues, say in the pub or around water coolers): you are key. You also need to know the facts and help communicate them in ways which counter misinformation. Key examples: get jabbed yourself, laughingly compare risk ratios to what you’ve done on your way to work etc…
I hope that I am wrong in my cynical expectations, but unfortunately, this has more than a whiff of a Wakefield-class scandal about it.