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.

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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.