The Truth About Flu Shots

Fear.jpgI generally don’t trust the media.  Not because of some conspiracy theory or out of fear that ever-fewer corporations own an ever-increasing share of the media outlets.  My distrust comes simply from the lack of knowledge that reporters and anchors have about the subjects they are covering.

My first realization of this came when I was in university.  While studying, I worked as a manager of a movie cinema.  There was a reporter who came to visit a new cinema that was under construction and subsequently wrote an article about the dynamics of cinema ownership and the distribution of films in a given market.  Reading the article, I was amazed at the number of inaccuracies it contained.  He simply didn’t have a good understanding of what he was writing about and, as a result, the article was flawed.

It occurred to me that if the reporter got something as trivial as an article about the distribution of films wrong, what were he and his peers doing with more important information?

We’re seeing that kind of “getting it wrong” reporting these days about the H1N1 flu shot.  From claims that receiving a flu shot will give you the flu to reports linking flu vaccines to autism to hysteria about mercury in vaccines to, most recently, the claim that a woman developed the rare neurological disorder dystonia from a flu shot, news reporting seems more interested in sensationalism than science, stories over statistics.

At the root of this shoddy reporting seems to be a misunderstanding of correlation and causation.  Just because something happens at or around the same time that something else happens, doesn’t mean one thing caused the other.  If I get a flu shot and a few days later get struck by lightning, the flu shot didn’t necessarily cause me to get struck.  Me standing in the middle of a field during a thunderstorm flying a kite with a key tied on the string may have been the more likely cause.

Why is this important?  Vaccines have played an important role in decreasing illness and death worldwide.  When fears and misinformation about vaccines are encouraged, even ones as simple as the scientifically untrue belief that you can catch the flu from a flu shot, they lead people to make very dangerous choices.

Amy Wallace has written a very interesting article about this in the October 19th issue of Wired magazine.  The article, titled An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, is well worth a read.

Some people are visual learners.  For those of us who learn best by seeing pictures and graphs, a special thanks to Sion, who pointed me towards an interesting graphic that shows the relative risks assoiated with HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine, another vaccine about which all sorts of pseudoscience is being bantered about.  Original appears here.


Finally, if you are curious about the difference between correlation and causation, the informative website Science-Based Medicine has an entry containing two videos that explains these statistical terms, and debunks other myths about vaccines, very clearly with hard and fast scientific data.  Worth a watch.

Thanks for letting me rant.

0 thoughts on “The Truth About Flu Shots

  1. *APPLAUSE* This was a beautiful rant! I am amazed what people report and what others will believe. We are having H1N1 sweep across campus. A coworker “informed” me that she was sure that the seasonal flu vaccination was what made 3 of our coworkers sick. Never mind that they all have children that caught H1N1 at school and exposed them. I tried to convince her otherwise but she is adamant – no flu shot. She doesn’t want to get sick!!! Oy!

  2. People CAN feel some symptoms of flu from the vaccine, because the virus is introduced into their system. So some people can react to it with symptoms of coryza and achy feeling. But that would be better than having flu outright. Regarding the H1N1 flu, this same flu epidemic was first seen in the mid seventies ( I think. I was doing residency at that time ). Some people did have Guillean Barre syndrome after the vaccine was given; the reason for this was that the vaccine was not purified properly. But at this time, there is no such danger. It is recommended that  young children and pregnant women, wose immunity is low, should definitely take this vaccine.Good post Chris. Very timely.

  3. Don’t get me started about the media. In the end it’s all about the ratings and the “swine flu” proved them with a “pandemic” which they could capitalize on. Of course, it turned out to be no worse than a regular flu but the coverage left a lot of nervous people out there.Quite frankly, I think I’ve had the flu maybe a couple of times over 15 years in NYC and I go to work on the subway so the whole thing doesn’t scare me. My 2.5 year old nephew got the H1N1 and it was no big deal – I heard him on the phone while talking to his mom and he was more interested in eating the sausage in a pizza than being aware he was ill. So yeah, media coverage, especially on television is best avoided. Here in NYC I’ve even opted to avoid the U.S. CNN as it has become a bit of a ratings circus and let’s not even talk about MSNBC and Fox News. I guess my sources of news are the New York Times, the WSJ and The Economist (and even then perhaps the last one is the least biased).

  4. Reporters and anchors lack the knowledge of the subjects they are covering. A reporter cum anchor in Hong Kong used to say that Singapore is in South Asia. He continued to say so for a long time. I began to wonder why was it possible that no one corrected him. Then I wrote a letter to him to point out his mistake. In the letter I said that if Singapore is in South Asia, then where is Southeast Asia. Then he corrected his mistake. He no longer says that Singapore is in South Asia. Now, he always say that Singapore is in Southeast Asia.

  5. I KNOW that the flu shot is what CAUSED the lightning to hit me TWICE on the head! =P*sigh* the media is filled with junks… we are moving back to the dark ages with our eyes open!

  6. for those with low immune system like elderly, young children, and those women in pregnancy, people in long term sickness, these vaccines maybe a better option for them

  7. you are welcome. 🙂 I always thought CNN is no better than Fox… all a bunch people eager for headlines… remember that 6 years old boy? 🙂 hahahaI called my doctor, and he doesn’t have the vaccine, what can I do? 🙂 I am gonna rant the government.

  8. Yes I too get frustrated with the media, particularly when politicians use it for their own gain. You simply don’t know what to trust anymore, and you really have to go along with a sense of ‘objective intuition’ perhaps.My worst is when news media (particular radio) will break a news story, but it’s done in such a way to induce the reader to reach a conclusion that in hindsight could actually be far removed from what the real scenario is. But because the media is supposedly unbiased or has no agenda in what it reports, people take it for the absolute truth – and then it all spirals out of control and whoever the subject matter of the news was is now completely tainted.

  9. Blah I read about that one too and good analogy. But if the media wants to, they will somehow link getting a flu shot to getting struck by lightning.Have you heard about that strep throat “causes” OCD crap?It was on THE TODAY SHOW…

  10. Great post. The main thing is, though I’m not ultra panicked about the flu or the swine flu or anything else, it seems that there is a higher chance of developing side effects from the flu than developing them from the vaccine. There has been a lot of study and changing of the h1n1 vaccine after the original one was introduced in the 70s. It wasn’t “rushed through” or anything like that. A pregnant woman in my city died of swine flu a week after giving birth – but so far no pregnant woman has been reported to experience any negative effects from the swine flu vaccine. I don’t put all my eggs in the basket of the media or “Big Pharma” – I use reason, logic, and research. There’s nothing about either flu vaccine that worries me. Sure, they can trigger underlying conditions – so can stress, pregnancy, surgery, and a million other things. Those underlying conditions will present regardless. People just don’t think things through. Thanks for posting – great info.

  11. It’s so hard to watch CNN now. There’s only a couple of shows on CNN that I try to watch. It’s sensationalism / junk food entertainment with just a splash of journalism. I usually watch CBC, BBC and PBS if I get a chance.

  12. I think there’s a big reaction from the federal government to go into overdrive mode about this is so that in case it does turn out to be the new “black plague” and millions of people die from it, then no one will be to blame for because it will seem like they tried (I.E. Katrina). There have been a total of 5000 swine flu deaths world wide so far, yet the “regular” flu kills about 20,000 people per year.

  13. I know! I’m so mad that so many people won’t be getting the shot bc of that cheerleader, and as a result, many people will get sick and infect tons of other people (and in the end kill way more people)

  14. This is an excellent post! Thank you for posting it. These are things that have been on my mind as well, that every time someone starts talking about swine flu or vaccine paranoia (my mother most recently), I end up going off and saying pretty much the exact same thing you say here — except you say it much better, hahaha.I actually caught swine flu early on, working in Chinatown. I was one of the first confirmed cases here, and only because my family is a bunch of physicians. It didn’t do much to me, much much weaker than the normal flu. I was not impressed.

  15. @chow@ireallylikefood – “I was not impressed” – Ha ha!  You were expecting more from the Killer Pandemic That Wiped Out Civilization As We Know It?@plump_Katz – Crazy, huh?  They will make things worse for everyone thanks to their ignorance.@Agent_Eric – Actually, regular flu averages 35,000 a year in the US alone.  I think the government agencies are doing the right thing in terms of being cautious – you never know how bad a pandemic will be and until we know for sure, it is better to be safe than sorry.  What’s that expression that doctors love?  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.@ElusiveWords – @Dezinerdreams – @TheLatinObserver – May I tell you something?  Our TV (which we only purchased less than a year ago) is plugged in to only a DVD player.  No cable, no antenna.  Sometimes I think, “Oh, I should be more in touch with what’s going on.”  But I realize that checking the headlines from a few reputable websites once a day and reading The Economist once a week, seems to be enough to stay in touch with the world without overdosing on sensationalism.@whitetrashpoet – Wonderful comments.  Thanks for adding them.@Connorryan – @kristalucas – Let me hear an “Amen!”  =D@dikdoktor – Well, if I can do my part to bring some sanity to the internet, I’ll try.@yang1815 – There was a time when I respected the Today show…@joburgboy – There is a proposal floating about in the US Congress to allow newspapers (“old media”) to change their tax status to non-profit in the face of declining revenues and profits with the proliferation of online and cable media.  While I don’t want to delve into that discussion right now – there are many pros and cons – there is part of me that thinks that news reporters and editors who don’t have to worry about advertising share are apt to do a better job at presenting the news as objectively as possible.  Look at National Public Radio in the US, for example.  (Sorry, US-centric reference)@YNOTswim – Hmm… you doctor is out of the vaccine?  What with all the time you spend on MUNI I would think a shot would be a good idea for you.@agmhkg – Certainly for those with compromised or weakened immune systems as well as people who are care providers or in regular contact with large groups of people.  Flight attendants, for example.  (Hint, hint)  =D@ZenPaper – Twice?!  No way!  Must have been a very strong dose of vaccine.@Wangium – I’ve emailed Ken Burns and asked him to tackle it, now that the National Parks project is done.  =D@choyshinglin – And who says an individual person can’t make a difference?  You single-handedly corrected the anchors geographic confusion.  Nicely done!@jassmine – @icapillas – You are most welcome.@ZSA_MD – Thanks for adding a doctor’s perspective to this.  Nice to have some voices of reason.@murisopsis – Sounds like your coworker could be a nominee for the Darwin Awards, I think.

  16. We’re still waiting for the vaccine here in LA, but don’t think I’ll get vaccinated until November because I’m not in the “priority” list. Is there an urgency in Thailand where you need to get vaccinated too?

  17. I have had my knickers in a twist over this too. Its only the Flu its not like the Ebola virus. Im no longer concerned about getting my kids vaccinated. THANKS for the post.

  18. My parents have a lot of neighbors with a lot of younger kids. I remember one year before two of these neighbors kids were about to start public school, the neighbors were throwing a fit about having to get their kids vaccinated for all the things they had to get vaccinated for before they could go to school due to the supposed connection between autism and vaccines. It was ridiculous! Obviously the kids had to eventually get vaccinated so they could go to school and they were fine after the vaccinations. I thought it was ridiculous that the parents threw such a fit about something that can protect their kids from bad things like measles and mumps!

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