With the national rollout of pandemic influenza vaccination beginning today, an international expert on influenza vaccination and a leading US consumer advocate have raised several questions for Australian health authorities.

Part 1: We need to ask some tough questions about swine flu vaccines: consumer advocate

Maryann Napoli, of the Centre for Medical Consumers in New York writes:

How do we know whether the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccines actually work? How do we know they’re safe for children, pregnant women and elderly people? These are the most basic questions consumer advocates and medical journalists usually want answered where it concerns new prescription drugs.

And yet when it comes to new vaccines, that justifiable scepticism is often suspended. What we get instead is an uncritical version of the classic public health position: Vaccines have saved millions of lives worldwide; therefore all vaccines are good. Vaccines are a major public health triumph and any risks are far outweighed by benefits.

That was made depressingly clear three years ago in the US when Gardasil, Merck’s Human Papillomavirus vaccine, came on the market. Yes, we got a lot of excellent reporting about Merck’s appalling marketing tactics but little about the science behind this vaccination recommended to all girls, age nine and up.

I recently asked the question about H1N1 vaccine effectiveness of the world’s leading authority on the quality of the evidence supporting influenza vaccines, Dr Tom Jefferson, a medically trained epidemiologist who has been a reviewer for the Cochrane Collaboration for many years.

His answers weren’t reassuring, and there isn’t much to say about safety because the one published study looked only at antigens 21 days after the vaccination.

As for those flu-related death stats meant to hasten flu-shot compliance, they haven’t seemed remotely trustworthy ever since a 2005 study concluded that an accurate assessment of flu-related deaths is virtually impossible because few cases are confirmed with blood tests. And the viral infection is usually cleared from the body before the appearance of complications that cause death.

Things are calm here in New York City (flu-wise, that is). The mayor says he won’t close public schools in the event of another swine flu outbreak, except as a last resort (there were at least five swine flu deaths last winter in NYC).

But perhaps the two-pig cartoon currently making the rounds is a sign of what’s going on elsewhere in the country. It shows a small pig marked, “Swine Flu” side-by-side with a giant pig marked “Swine Flu Hysteria”.

By the end of October, all we need will be a news flash about the death of one child, and people, young and old, will be lining up in droves for the vaccine.

Here’s something that might give them pause: In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, the US Congress, which is bought and paid for by PHARMA, passed a federal law that allows vaccine companies to be protected from liability if anyone gets hurt.

Authorities need only declare a public health emergency for the protection to go into effect. Like most Americans, I would probably be blissfully unaware of this law were it not for one independent vaccine safety organisation, the National Vaccine Information Centre.

Part 2: We need objective data: international expert

Dr Tom Jefferson, of the Cochrane Collaboration’s Acute Respiratory Infections Group, writes:

As winter turns to Antipodean spring, the scientific community Down Under have a duty to inform their northern counterparts about the ebbing of the current “pandemic”.

The information needs to be as accurate and as comprehensive as possible, but most of all it needs to be free of spin and shroud waving. Both of
them have featured prominently in scientific and lay media coverage of the “pandemic” and have obscured reality, like a smokescreen.

Here’s what we need to know:

  • What are the estimates of the incidence and impact of influenza-like illness (ILI) in Oz/Kiwiland since early 2009?
  • How do these compare with previous years?
  • What is the estimated slice of ILIs and complications caused by influenza A&B and influenza A/H1N1 since early 2009?
  • What is the estimate of the co-circulation of other agents?
  • Can you give us full details of deaths coded as caused by H1N1 including, setting, comorbidites and co-infections?
  • Can you do the same for all serious cases who survived?
  • Do you have evidence from seroprevalence surveys of when H1N1 first appeared Down Under?
  • What does your pharmacosurveillance tell you about harms from the use of antivirals?
  • Are still serious about mass vaccinating now the epidemic is past?
  • If so, why?

I know it is a lot to ask for, but we need the information to break the smokescreen and in any case if your public health is as good as we hear it is, you will be able to get the information relatively quickly and in an unbiased manner.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.