An interesting thing happened today in the elevator at school. A friend of mine and I walked in to go from the second to the sixth floor. As we walked into the elevator, I noticed that it was a bit crowded. “Whoa,” I said, “I hope everyone got their flu shot.” A couple of people smiled, a couple of others giggled. One woman replied, “I don’t believe in the flu shot. Never got it. Never will.”
I was not ready for that anarchy.
A man asked her if she didn’t believe in vaccines. She clarified that she’s gotten every other vaccine, just not the flu vaccine. Why? Because, according to her, the flu vaccine has “never” been proven to work.
I almost had an aneurysm. I looked up at my friend. She was smiling at me. I think she knew what was going through my mind. We’ve had discussions on how antivaccine people really rattle my cage, so to speak. She shook her head a little bit. I bit my tongue.
I almost swallowed my tongue, almost.
The woman in the elevator was obviously, painfully wrong. I don’t know whether or not she’s been listening to a PhD who used to be at Hopkins and has said some pretty uninformed things about the influenza vaccine. I don’t know where she got into her head that the vaccine against influenza has never been shown to work. But statements like hers, from a person like her, are dangerous. They are dangerous because she has a bit of authority on the matter because she is affiliated with a very prestigious school of public health. (She was wearing a badge, but I couldn’t tell what her role there was.) It’s not unreasonable to think that a person who doesn’t know better would believe her because, hey, she’s something at a very prestigious school of public health.
A skeptical person would put her statements to the test, but not everyone is skeptical. And the evidence against her statement is not very readily available or understandable to the general public. Yet all you have to do is go to the CDC report on pediatric deaths:
“The number of influenza-associated pediatric deaths reported to CDC during the current season [2012-13] surpassed 100 this week as an additional 6 deaths were reported in FluView. This brings the total number of influenza-associated pediatric deaths reported to CDC, to date, to 105 for the 2012-2013 season.
Pediatric deaths are defined as flu-associated deaths that occur in people younger than 18 years. An early look at this season’s reports indicates that about 90 percent occurred in children who had not received a flu vaccination this season.
This review also indicated that 60 percent of deaths occurred in children who were at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications, but 40 percent of these children had no recognized chronic health problems. The proportions of pediatric deaths occurring in children who were unvaccinated and those who had high-risk conditions are consistent with what has been seen in previous seasons.”
Some people will say that the results are confounded because people who do vaccinate tend to have better health habits. So someone who is vaccinated is not being protected necessarily by the vaccine but by their habits. The problem with this is that the only habit that can prevent influenza is hand washing. Eating right, sleeping right, etc., have not been shown to increase or decrease the probability of catching influenza or not having bad outcomes from it. Even if there was some truth to the belief that the results are somehow confounded, it’s unreasonable to think that 90% of the kids who died were not vaccinated just by chance.
People who want to poke holes at the evidence will probably do, and that’s when we hit them back with other evidence. But to say that the vaccine has “never” been proven to work? That’s just uninformed or irresponsible… Or both.
If you’ve been reading what I write, you know that I don’t think that the flu vaccine is the best that it can be. It certainly is not a sacred cow to me. But it’s the best we have right now, and it works in more people than “none” and has been tested more times than “never”. The only reason why I didn’t get into it with the woman in the elevator is because I had to get going and go study for my epidemiology midterm exam tomorrow… Which is what I’m off to do right now.
Some battles can wait.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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