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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Vaccinations & Swine Flu Update

8 Dec 2009. Joseph Mercola and several media outlets are blaming the H1N1 vaccine for causing Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in a Virginia teenager. The evidence? The symptoms began several hours after receiving the vaccination and the teen's father blames the vaccine. Jordan McFarland had both a seasonal flu vaccine and an H1N1 shot a week ago. According to FOX News, his dad believes the illness is linked to the H1N1 flu shot because Jordan had regular flu shots four times before without a problem.

No consideration is given to the fact that usually GBS occurs a few days or weeks after the patient has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. No mention is made of the fact that nobody knows why GBS strikes some people and not others or what sets the disease in motion. No mention is made of the fact that "Guillain-Barré is called a syndrome rather than a disease because it is not clear that a specific disease-causing agent is involved." No mention is made of the fact that the main evidence for the belief that vaccines cause GBS is due to a measured increase in cases in those vaccinated in 1976 for swine flu. All studies since then that have tried to find an association between flu vaccines and GBS have found nothing except that there is a clear increase in risk of GBS after the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that since April there have been at least 4,000 swine flu deaths reported in the U.S.

A newly published study on swine flu in Mexico found that while babies and young people are most likely to get sick from swine flu, the elderly have higher death rates.

Several hospital workers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia refused to be vaccinated against swine flu and were fired. These workers seem to believe that their "beliefs" make them immune to commonsense requirements. They work around sick children, children who are unable to be vaccinated because of their illnesses and who need the protection that comes from herd immunity.

The CDC wants those giving the vaccinations to report "side effects." But how does one tell the difference between a coincidence and a side effect? People get headaches, muscle aches, fevers, and nausea every day. People die every day. Odds are that some of those people will have had a vaccination of some sort hours or days before their misfortune. Some people faint when they get shots. Is it the shot or the fear of the shot that causes the fainting? I think we can safely say that if soreness occurs where the shot was given that there's a causal connection. But if someone develops some weird disorder a few days or a week after being vaccinated, why assume the vaccination had anything to do with it? Whether someone is having an allergic reaction to a shot is something only a professional could make, but I would imagine that there is a lot of room for error in making such judgments.

Barbara Loe Fisher, one of the co-founders of the so-called National Vaccine Information Center, a clearing house for the anti-vaccination movement, says that assuming any side effect is a coincidence may discourage doctors and hospitals from reporting adverse events in a timely manner.* But she'd probably consider any minor or serious problem occurring after the vaccination an adverse effect. The CDC website includes GBS in its list of potential side effects, but it also notes that "flu vaccines have not been clearly linked to GBS." If I were a doctor and had a patient present with symptoms of an autoimmune disorder several hours after I had given the patient a flu shot, I don't think I'd assume the two were necessarily connected.

There continues to be a shortage of H1N1 vaccine, but the good news is that the H1N1 swine flu pandemic during the autumn-winter flu season looks like it will be less severe than had been feared. Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, notes:

As more detailed data have become available, we have been able to improve our estimates of how severe this disease is. Early on, it was difficult to measure the flu's impact and it was crucial to plan for the full range of possible outcomes. Fortunately, the virus now appears to be near the milder end.

Lipsitch is the senior author of a new joint American-British study that analyzed the pandemic in the United States by looking at national statistics from the CDC and local statistics in Milwaukee and New York City. They chose those two cities because they thought they did a good job of keeping statistics.*

Meanwhile, South Korea's president has offered to send swine flu medication to North Korea amid reports that the virus has killed more than forty people and is spreading fast.

update: 5 Jan 2009. Grabbing Flu by the Neck Scientists have discovered an antibody that is active against many different strains of influenza, including the 1918 Spanish flu, the H5N1 bird flu, and the largest group of seasonal flus. This raises the possibility of a universal flu vaccine that would confer “durable immunity, much like a tetanus shot,” against a range of influenza strains, said Wayne A. Marasco, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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