| 2.9°C Dublin

Warning: vaccination scare stories can kill you

It was when the father-in-law offered me a post-Christmas drink and I refused it -- a rare occurrence -- that I knew something was up. That, and the fact that my throat was raw, my head thumping and every bone in my body aching. I excused myself, headed to bed and pretty much stayed there until it was time to return to Dublin (they live in Galway).

Thankfully they excused my unsociable behaviour. Was it the dreaded swine flu (H1N1) or just post-Christmas exhaustion? From my utter inability to move, read or sleep, I guessed it was the former. Had I not availed of the flu vaccination? Of course not. A visit to my GP would have cost €60, and in these cash-strapped times, a flu jab for something I may not actually get would be an unnecessary luxury. But both my children had received it last year in school though, and neither succumbed to my potentially dangerous virus. Others have not been so lucky.

So far this season, 573 people have been hospitalised because of swine flu and 52 remain in intensive-care units. (Current HSE statistics).

In the Republic, 32 people have died so far from the virus and 21 in Northern Ireland. We are now in the middle of a full-blown flu epidemic. The HSE has said that the number of deaths will continue to rise because of the delay in reporting them and also that it's too early to say if the epidemic has reached its peak yet. Currently the HSE is asking all pregnant women who have already received the swine-flu vaccine to return to their GP for the full flu vaccine, after evidence emerged that there is "a significant risk of death for pregnant women from Influenza B". This is scary stuff. No woman likes to take any form of medication -- bar perhaps the odd paracetemol tablet -- while pregnant. Memories of the devastating effects of the Thalidomide drug prescribed willy-nilly to pregnant women worldwide still prevail. I know quite a few pregnant women who would rather chew their arms off than submit to a 'safe' vaccination from their GP. They'd prefer to take the risk of hoping -- fingers crossed -- that they don't catch the virus. Why is this? Why risk your life and the life of your unborn child?

We've been assured that the vaccine is safe -- far, far safer than if a pregnant woman (or any of the at-risk groups) contracted the actual virus (A or B). So why the reluctance to get the vaccination?

Perhaps media reports like those seen in some British newspapers last week may explain a would-be mother's anxiety at presenting for a flu jab. Newspapers reported that pregnant 15-year-old Leah La Roche and her unborn baby died of natural causes following a suspected cardiac arrest. They then added at the end that she had recently had a flu jab. No explanation, no medical opinions that there may have been a connection between the heart attack and the flu jab -- just a dangerous, unverified, unjustified inference that the two were connected. Just enough to make many an anxious pregnant woman reading the piece add two and two to make five and decide not to get the flu jab. And last week the UK Health Secretary admitted that over 70 per cent of pregnant women remain unvaccinated due to concerns about the safety of the vaccine. Meanwhile, pregnant women are dying from the virus.

We've been here before, of course. Hands up how many parents out there choose not to get their children vaccinated against diseases such as polio, TB, rubella, measles and mumps because they believed that the MMR vaccine could cause autism? Doubts about the safety of the MMR vaccine first surfaced in 1998 when The Lancet published a piece co-authored by Dr Andrew Wakefield, which was based on a study of 12 children with autism. He claimed that eight of them developed symptoms within days of receiving the MMR vaccine. Although his claims were immediately challenged and have now been completely debunked, (last year the study was retracted and Wakefield stripped of his medical licence) the damage was done.

Even when hundreds of peer-reviewed studies affirming that there was no connection between the MMR jab and autism were published, many parents preferred to believe the one study that was bogus -- and in doing so put not just their own children at risk but also those with whom they came into contact.

Since Wakefield's criminally irresponsible paper was released, immunisation rates on both sides of the Atlantic have dropped and outbreaks of measles, mumps, whooping cough, etc have increased with children unnecessarily dying of vaccine-preventable diseases. Similarly, many of the deaths from the H1N1 flu virus could probably have been prevented by a simple flu jab. A flu jab many people are still reluctant to get.

How can this happen in the 21st Century -- when we are more highly educated than our ancestors and have more access to verifiable information? Why do we prefer to believe pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo than empirically proven facts?

Last week, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear by Seth Mnookin, was published. In it Mnookin (a Vanity Fair journalist) investigates this issue as it relates to the MMR/autism controversy and successfully shows up the lies, mis-information and sloppy research used by Wakefield and other anti-immunisation groups. He also opines that the controversy was given legs by journalists who displayed a "willingness to parrot quack claims under the guise of reporting on citizen concerns", saying that "much of the coverage failed to adequately explain the fundamental but essential difference between correlation and causation", (the irresponsible reporting of Leah La Roche's death and the comment that she recently had a flu jab is such an example).

But, more interestingly, Mnookin explains why so many well-educated, middle class people are conned by charlatans like Wakefield. He makes the point that the preponderant trend of 21st-Century thinking is that 'feelings' have as much value -- and sometimes more -- than empirical evidence. Because there is such a widespread mistrust of governments and pharmaceutical companies etc, many people -- with the help of Google -- prefer to depend on their own opinions about what is true, regardless of the facts.

Already the internet is awash with 'evidence' that the combined influenza vaccine is much more dangerous than the virus itself. And unfortunately there are many credulous people who will prefer to believe unsubstantiated scare stories rather than empirical research by scientists and doctors.

Yet, in a way, who can blame them? Look at us here in Ireland. Would you trust the HSE to know what is best for you or your child? Do you believe that our current Minister for Health -- Tanaiste Mary Coughlan -- will have scoured all the available scientific peer-reviewed information on what is the best possible approach to containing the current flu epidemic?

A European study on last year's influenza immunisation programme, published last week, showed Ireland was the only country of nine which began its pandemic vaccination campaign after the illness had peaked.

The public, once again, must forget about depending on the Government to sort out this crisis. We must do what we can to protect ourselves. So, get along to your GP and get vaccinated, particularly pregnant women and all others who are at risk.

And if you think you're getting any symptoms of flu, stay at home, in bed, don't go out where you can infect others. Swine flu can be fatal, but with vaccination it can be successfully contained. Don't believe the scaremongers.

Sunday Independent