It’s National Influenza Vaccine Week! So, I am going to get you in the spirit with a post that I have been working on for quite some time.
It all started with an article about the flu shot that was forwarded to me by several people. This article purported to have “shocking” news about the influenza vaccine. Whenever an article on vaccines is self-described as shocking, I am suspect. Because usually this means that whoever wrote the article thinks that this bit of news is going to shatter conventional medicine and prove once and for all that vaccines are awful. Remember, the alleged CDC “whistleblower”? So, it was with an iota of suspicion that I read this latest “blistering” attack on flu vaccines (particularly as it was posted on a website bizarrely called “realfarmacy”).
Well, as I kind of figured, the shocking news was not all that shocking after all. Essentially, this article was written to convince everyone once and for all that the flu vaccine is a no good, awful, terribly bad thing. And recognizing that most of us wouldn’t put too much stock in the medical advice of something called “realfarmacy,” this particular article tried to beef up its position by citing to what appeared to be real science. Specifically, an article published in 2013 by one Peter Doshi, PhD (who is not, despite realfarmacy’s claim, a “John Hopkins Scientist”) entitled: “Influenza: marketing vaccine by marketing disease.”
As you can probably surmise from its title, this article asserts that those of us who get the flu shot have been victims of a plot to sell vaccines and the CDC and healthcare workers, etc., have done so just to make more money. There are a lot of issues with Doshi’s article, and while many smart people have already addressed this article (here and here), but naturally, I had to add my two cents.
I read the article, but it will come as no surprise that I remain firmly convinced of the value (and safety) of the influenza vaccine and am not putting any stock in Doshi’s claims. Here’s why:
1. Peter Doshi is not an infectious disease doctor. He is not a medical doctor at all. Nor is he an epidemiologist (professionals who study disease — how it mutates, travels, emerges, affects certain people and not others). He is a professor of pharmacy. So, while Doshi may well be educated in his field, his field is not the study of the distribution of disease in a population. Studying the hows and whys of disease and health problems in the population is not something you just wake up and start doing — you don’t go to your mechanic for heart surgery just because one day he woke up and was like, “Engine? heart? Similar? Yeah. I can do that.”
2. Doshi does not understand basic principles of how vaccines work. To make sure I understood, I called upon Dr. John Swartzberg, M.D., who is an infectious disease specialist and professor at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. According to Dr. Swartzberg, many vaccines work by producing antibodies against a particular disease. Antibodies are proteins that fight a recognized germ or “foreign invader” in the body. A vaccine works by inducing the body to create antibodies, and the production of antibodies has been shown to correlate with protection against disease. Simply put, if your body creates antibodies to a disease, then when your body encounters that disease, it automatically starts to protect you against it.
Here is where Doshi reveals his lack of understanding about vaccines. He argues that the flu shot should not be recommended in older adults because there have been no studies on its effectiveness, except for the fact that the vaccine induces antibody production. So, he agrees that the flu vaccine works just like vaccines are supposed to by creating antibodies, but does not understand that this in turn shows the effectiveness of the vaccine. The CDC did not just make up this antibody idea to trick people into getting the flu shot. It’s how vaccines work.
3. Doshi likes to argue with mainstream science and medicine. Not only does he question the consensus that influenza is a serious disease, he also apparently questions whether the influenza virus actually causes the flu. That is, because people with flu-like symptoms may not test positive for influenza, the flu is not caused by influenza. So, because people with sore throats do not always test positive for streptococcal bacteria, strep throat is not caused by streptococcal bacteria? Hmm. And, to further impress upon you that Doshi holds some bizarre beliefs, there is also evidence that Doshi questions another almost universally accepted scientific fact: that HIV is the cause of AIDS.
4. Despite what Doshi claims, there actually are a lot of cases of flu every year — they just are not reported (and therefore cannot be tracked). Influenza, unlike things like AIDS or tuberculosis, does not have to be reported to public health authorities and the CDC. Because influenza does not have to be reported, we can fairly safely assume that the true numbers of flu cases are much higher than what is actually recorded. And as the CDC notes, many providers do not test for the flu at all, so a certain number of cases simply are not confirmed each year.
5. But Doshi says the flu vaccine is dangerous and has a study to prove it! Not so fast. The study he relies on to prove his case, has nothing to do with the United States. He talks about out of Australia and northern Europe indicating that the flu vaccine was associated with seizures in children and narcolepsy in adolescents, but according to Dr. Swartzberg, these reported adverse outcomes were due to additives in the vaccines that are NOT used in the United States. Doshi’s fear-mongering is not applicable to our vaccines.
6. Finally, Doshi really does not understand how serious the flu can be. In his opinion piece, Doshi summarizes his position by asserting that influenza is one more case of “disease mongering.” It’s just not that big a deal. To some extent, Doshi is right. Most people who get the flu are not going to get deathly ill (though, if you have ever had the flu, you may have thought you were close). But, it is estimated that roughly 200,000 people per year are hospitalized in the U.S. for flu-related illness. Moreover, deaths from flu from 1976 to 2007 have been estimated to be between 3,000 and 49,000 per year. That’s a lot of hospitalizations and deaths from a benign illness.
I could go on and on about this article. But I will refrain.
Here’s what it boils down to: Don’t fall for the “shocking” news you see on Facebook and go get your flu shot.