Expert: Flu vaccine might be less beneficial and less safe than has been claimed, and the threat of influenza appears overstated.

CDC studies are “simply implausible” and likely the product of the ‘healthy-user effect’ (a propensity for healthier people to be more likely to get vaccinated than less healthy people).

The media release is below.

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Expert questions US public health agency advice on influenza vaccines

Marketing influenza vaccines involves marketing influenza as a threat of great proportions, argues Johns Hopkins fellow

Promotion of influenza vaccines is one of the most visible and aggressive public health policies today, writes Doshi. Today around 135 million doses of influenza vaccine annually enter the US market, with vaccinations administered in drug stores, supermarkets – even some drive-throughs.

This enormous growth has not been fuelled by popular demand but instead by a public health campaign that delivers a straightforward message: influenza is a serious disease, we are all at risk of complications from influenza, the flu shot is virtually risk free, and vaccination saves lives.

Yet, Doshi argues that the vaccine might be less beneficial and less safe than has been claimed, and the threat of influenza appears overstated.

To support its case, the CDC cites two studies of influenza vaccines, published in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals and carried out by academic and government researchers with non-commercial funding. Both found a large (up to 48%) relative reduction in the risk of death.

“If true, these statistics indicate that influenza vaccines can save more lives than any other single licensed medicine on the planet,” says Doshi. But he argues that these studies are “simply implausible” and likely the product of the ‘healthy-user effect’ (in this case, a propensity for healthier people to be more likely to get vaccinated than less healthy people).

In addition, he says, there is virtually no evidence that influenza vaccines reduce elderly deaths – the very reason the policy was originally created.

He points out that the agency itself acknowledges the evidence may be undermined by bias. Yet, he says “for most people, and possibly most doctors, officials need only claim that vaccines save lives, and it is assumed there must be solid research behind it.”

He also questions the CDC’s recommendation that beyond those for whom the vaccine is contraindicated, influenza vaccine can only do good, pointing to serious reactions to influenza vaccines in Australia (febrile convulsions in young children) and Sweden and Finland (a spike in cases of narcolepsy among adolescents).

Doshi suggests that influenza is yet one more case of “disease mongering” – medicalising ordinary life to expand markets for new products. But, he warns that unlike most stories of selling sickness, “here the salesmen are public health officials, worried little about which brand of vaccine you get so long as they can convince you to take influenza seriously.”

But perhaps the cleverest aspect of the influenza marketing strategy surrounds the claim that “flu” and “influenza” are the same, he concludes. “All influenza is “flu,” but only one in six “flus” might be influenza. It’s no wonder so many people feel that “flu shots” don’t work: for most flus, they can’t.”

Earlier this year, the BMJ launched a ‘Too Much Medicine’ campaign to help tackle the threat to health and the waste of money caused by unnecessary care. The journal will also partner at an international conference Preventing Overdiagnosis to be held in September in the USA.

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5 responses to “Expert: Flu vaccine might be less beneficial and less safe than has been claimed, and the threat of influenza appears overstated.

  1. Influenza vaccines are largely ineffective because the virus mutates. so quickly.

    But of itself influenza is seldom fatal in humans: they usually die from . subsequent bacterial infection of the lungs

    There is an excellent vaccine against this commonly referred to as Pneumovax. pioneered in the 1950s and now quite advanced. But little used in the early days because of the rise of antibiotics.

    As a vaccine it is very effective against dangerous strep in the lung and antibiotics, if given in time, can do the rest.

    It’s chief drawback is that it is not suitable in children but a new version is: and like all vaccines it may fade with time but gives a measure of immunity for life.

    Likewise there is a new generation of synthetic influenza vaccines, not yet quite ready, but if they work, they are broad spectrum and act in general against the the whole range of influenza viruses.

    And they are likely to cost a fraction of the current egg based monocultures which change every year.

    How cheap and effective they will be only time will tell.

    Kindest Regards

  2. The worst case of flu I have ever had was contracted from a bad vaccination. Ever since I have both avoided vaccinations and remained flu-free.

    • Really? I bet scientists want to study you. You’d be the first confirmed case of getting the flu from a flu vaccine, being as how the virus in it is dead and chopped into pieces and all.

  3. It might be that the technique of choosing the strains one year in advance – basically immunizing us against last years disease is part of the problem. If we go to cell based and cut the production time in a quarter it would be better.

    You also have to wonder if getting rid of one opportunistic disease just leaves the window open for others to fill their place

  4. Are there any statistics on influenza mortality rates from the years before flu shots were widespread, compared to the present day? Wouldn’t that be a helpful bit of data?

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