Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fear oFlu

Vaccination; 041028-N-9864S-021 Yokosuka, Japa...Image via Wikipedia
Are you getting the flu shot? If so, are you then getting the H1N1 ("swine") flu shot? In about a week, and at school, I'll be getting my first flu shot in about 7 years. Personally, I used to be allergic to the shot, but I don't have that excuse any longer. When asked why I have avoided the flu shot for so long, my usual reply was to offer my "expert" medical opinion: the flu shot gave me the flu. That was the story I told. And I now have come to believe that it's a false story.

But there is a battle brewing between the media and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), as reported on the NPR show, On the Media. The issue is a classic correlation versus causation mixup. As host Bob Garfield posited, "At some point, someone's going to die, shortly after having been vaccinated with the H1N1 vaccine", and the media will report on this occurrence, and conclusions will inevitably be drawn. As medical reporter, Ben Goldacre argues, "Health scares are a lot like toothpaste. Once they're out of the tube, they're very very difficult to get back in." Consider such culturally specific scares as the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism (in America), that hepatitis shots cause multiple sclerosis (in France), and that polio vaccines cause infertility (in Nigeria).

What is the proper role of the media in this situation? Government watchdog or public health information service? Where do you get your information about your health? Why do you think Americans are increasingly fearful of all kinds of vaccines?

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Cleo and Leo said...

The issue of where to find vetted (evaluated) medical information is the basis of my profession. Knowing where to look and whom to believe is different for professionals and consumers, yet both have something in common: they often give credence to sources less credible than desired. Docs look at how they were taught, what their colleagues are doing, and what drug reps tell them. Consumers are vulnerable to the scare tactics that the news media uses to generate sales and readers. Neither approach leads to good health care. For an excellent resource for both professionals and consumers, take a look at Everything there has been filtered by the National Library of Medicine.

Claire m said...

I get my information about health from my parents. As an example, my parents were at first reluctant to give me the Gardasil shots when they were first released because there wasn't that much information about the side effects of the shot. However after waiting a few months to see if there were any common side effects and getting an additional second opinion from my doctor, they thought it would be a good idea to get the shot.
The media will obviously report on the worst case scenarios that will occur with the H1N1 vaccine, but the decision ultimately is up to the individual. It is not the media's responsibility to sway people in any direction, but rather truthfully inform the public about new vaccines as best as it can.

Shirley said...

The media is, like all other markets, trying to get customers. Its role is to get people to read, listen, and watch, not to be responsible for their customers' health (unless that increases profits, which, as far as I know, it doesn't).

Each individual should be responsible for their own health. I, personally, get my health information from my dad, a neurosurgeon who does his best to keep up with the "goings-on" in other fields that could directly affect the health of our family. To use Claire's example of Gardasil, my dad is STILL researching studies over it himself, before he lets my mom make an appointment with my doctor to even discuss it.

S. Bolos said...


Thanks for sharing this personal story. But do you think the media has been loyal to this notion to "truthfully inform the public about new vaccines as best as it can"?

I know I posed a question regarding what the media *should* do, but I wonder what people about the job the media has done so far.

S. Bolos said...

Shirley -- great critique of the media. So what do you recommend for those people who don't have access to a neurosurgeon? Are they just out of luck?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Shirley, that the government is trying to make money. However I also think in this situation the US government is trying to sell the vaccine because the government is trying to look good in the eyes of other nations. I think the government wants to show that we have the swine flu under control.

Kevin S. said...

Over the weekend, I considered writing about the flu vaccine for my blog entry. When I started to do research, I was surprised that most of the Google hits were either conspiracy sites, or media reporting on them. There were blogs supposedly done be real doctors explaining how vaccines have toxic levels of mercury and other carcinogens. Also, a fair number of the bogus "vaccines cause autism" sites showed up. The few search results were just incomprehensible. They had pages of clinical studies that were subject - verb - number. Each age bracket had different percentages of immunization, illness, complications, death, etc. It is tough to draw your own conclusions when the data is overly specific.

I think that it is too difficult for the average American or the average journalist to understand the data, so the have to rely on other people's interpretation. When the media gets its hands on new medical findings, they don't do adequate research to corroborate them. There are all sorts of examples like cell phone radiation and Baby Mozart where the media took the word of one researcher who was completely wrong. There should be a watchdog group to hold the media accountable for spreading lies and then trying to forget about them.

Caroline C said...

I usually get my health information from my parents because they are the ones watching the news daily. However, through the web I stay connected. I think that the media always blows up health issues. But this is a good thing because everyone becomes aware. I think that the media should inform citizens of success stories of the H1N1 vaccine or any issues that come.
On a side note, I'm on a Jr auxiliary board for RUSH hospital and I volunteer there. Today, I got an email telling me that I have to get both the seasonal flu shoot and the H1N1 virus vaccine when it becomes available, in order to volunteer. This makes sense because they don't want to spread the disease throughout the hospital. So I'll be getting my flu shots this year!

Ruchi said...

Claire- I relate a lot to your story because my parents are actually opposed to the Gardasil vaccine as well. My mom never got it for me when I was younger because she was unsure of what the side effects would be like, and so I still haven't gotten it. Although I realize now that probably wasn't a smart choice on my mom's part, I didn't think twice about it at the time.

Regarding the H1N1 vaccination, I'm not sure if I'll get it or not, but I definitely don't see it as the media's place to judge whether or not it should be available. Like Mr. Bolos said, vaccines are accused of having harmful side-effects all the time; but it would take a LOT for that to undermine all of the good things they do and lives they save.

Anna H. said...

I also think that the media's main goal is to get viewer's to watch their station. So whenever they can keep up with big topics in the news, such as H1N1, they are going to make a story of it. However, these stories are often blown out of proportion for the sole reason of attracting viewers. I like the example Mr. Bolos used about Bob Garfield's comment. The media took that statement out of context and presented it to the world. I do not think this is how the media should report about health issues, but in some cases its how the media handles it.
Like many others I mainly get my health information from my parents. But, I do know that my mom often calls my doctor and consults with her before making these decisions. I think your family doctor or pediatrician is a great resource that people should take advantage of.

Madelaine said...

I have a lot of trust in my parents and doctors when it comes to information about health. I've never really questioned what information had been given to me. This is the first health scare that has actually effected the people around me, and it's the first time where I have felt that a vaccine actually matters. I think that Americans are increasingly fearful of vaccines because now they matter. There are so many different theories about H1N1, that people probably find it hard to confide in a single source for their information. They are becoming skeptical. There are so many conflicting stories about this health issue, that it's hard to know who to believe.

Although some vaccines do have side effects on some people, I consider them to be an advancement in health care that everyone should use. With the media today, it is difficult to know if you are really receiving the right information. I doubt the media would do this, but I think they should stop making H1N1 into a bigger story, and a bigger scare, than it actually is. The media should focus on the facts and what will keep the majority of the public healthy.

MMarin said...

I get a lot of my information about health from my parents. They don't tell me much at all, really, but my mom's a doctor so I trust her judgment. She's been a doctor for a long time, and the only doctors I go to see are people she knows well, which is lucky of me. She's also aware of the process of testing vaccines, which I think most Americans don't have the benefit of knowing. It's the media's job to inform people, in my opinion, especially seeing as it's so relevant now to peoples' health around the world, and yet they do poorly at informing outsiders to medicine.

I recently saw a video that was played on the news of a girl who is afflicted with dystonia, and was discovered to have it 10 days after her seasonal flu shot. There was some pretty terrifying video of the girl trying to walk and talk. However, her case was not actually proven to be connected to the flu vaccine, and her reaction only had a one-in-a-million chance of being connected. What bothers me most is that there's no way the public can watch that video without feeling paranoid, even if there is a (boring and verbal) disclaimer about the misrepresentation. The media is simply being irresponsible in this case. They may say the girl's case is anomalous, yet the focus of the report is the bizarre, shocking imagery of the girl's "side effects." The title of the video is "Girl Gets "Flu" Shot & Now Can Only Walk Backwards!" which even reminds me of something I'd watch on E! news, perhaps due to the exclamation point. Another thing that's strange is that the video came out only about a week ago, although the girl got dystonia in August.

Although there are scientific studies done on thousands of people about how the risks of vaccines are much lower than risk of flu, I'm sure fear can be used counter to peoples' logic, especially if that's what's reported on more often than the scientific process. If individuals are bombarded with fear-inspiring reports that are done by supposed news sources, it's not their fault for buying in to the media.

Sarah. said...

I volunteer at Evanston Hospital, and on Saturday mornings I spend my time in the Women's Hospital with the newborns and new-moms. Two Saturdays ago, I found out that anyone under the age of 21 wasn't allowed on the floor anymore because of Swine Flu scares. I got an e-mail sayings I could either get the vaccine or wait until the restrictions were waved. As I didn't think they would be lifted for a while, I decided I would get the vaccine. I asked my dad, a physician, about the vaccine and he said that there's not as much known about the H1N1 vaccine, but there have been adverse effects. In AS (or maybe Biology, maybe both?), there was talk about a girl who got the vaccine, and a week later was diagnosed with a less-than-one-in-a-million change of getting this disorder neurological disorder. My Bio teacher went ahead and showed the video of the girl to our class (I missed it because I was being rejected by the Blood Drive) and I was so relieved when I did. Anyways, I still haven't gotten the vaccine, I haven't volunteered in almost 2 weeks, and I still have no idea what to do. It would be helpful that if the Government issued announcements about occurrences like this in a more calm manner, but then again, the media has every right to publicize what's at stake for these consumers. The Vaccine has to be treated like peanut butter infested salmonella if it's going to hurt us, right?