Friday night a week ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill made some strong assertions about the H1N1 vaccine. He was WRONG then and he was wrong again tonight. He reiterated his unsupported opinions again tonight on the last episode of his show for this season. Clearly, Maher is defensive on this issue. He claims he is only asking people to think about it, but that is not what he advocated.
First, let's try to separate fact from fiction.
1. Swine flu or H1N1 is a real strain of influenza and it has killed and sickened many people around the world.
2. Ordinary flu kills thousands of people every year.
3. The cases of H1N1 (swine flu) in the U.S. are on the rise and certain parts of the population are at at more risk than others.
4. The Centers for Disease Control have recommended vaccination for certain parts of this population -- younger people, people with immune deficiency, children, and pregnant women.
And if you don't trust the CDC, this URL is from WebMD which has no particular profit to be made from vaccinations. Pregnant women are significantly more likely to have complications or death from swine flu, for a variety of reasons.
5. Many people question the effectiveness of vaccines in general, and there are legitimate questions that can be raised. How effective was the regular flu vaccine during the 2007-08 season? Below is some factual information about the effectiveness of vaccines.
The effectiveness of the vaccine depends in part on the match between the viruses in the vaccine and influenza viruses that are circulating in the community. If these are closely matched, vaccine effectiveness (VE) is higher. If they are not closely matched, vaccine effectiveness can be reduced. During well-matched years, clinical trials have shown VE between 70% and 90% for inactivated influenza vaccines in the prevention of serologically confirmed influenza infection among healthy adults.
Interim results from a study carried out this season with the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found overall vaccine effectiveness (VE) of 44% for the 2007-08 flu shot. This included VE of 58% effectiveness against the predominant influenza A (H3N2) viruses, but no effectiveness against influenza B viruses. No influenza A (H1N1) viruses were seen in the study population, so VE against these viruses could not be assessed. A higher VE against H3N2 viruses than against influenza B viruses was likely because the circulating H3N2 strains and H3N2 strain in the vaccine were closely related while the circulating B viruses were antigenically and genetically much different from the influenza B virus in the vaccine and there was little to no cross-reactivity.
CDC has other systems for estimating vaccine effectiveness. These systems cover multiple sites across the country, which provides vaccine effectiveness data on different populations in areas where different influenza strains may predominate. However, vaccine effectiveness estimates using these systems are not yet available.
6. There is a lot of fear-mongering about the dangers or effectiveness of vaccines, particularly swine flu vaccine. But if you look at the sources of this information, they come from less than credible sources. People who warn against vaccinations do so most often with very little evidence that can be corroborated. News articles and individual physician opinions are not always accurate or based on more rigorous scientific evidence.
This is where Bill Maher is absolutely wrong and actually dangerous. He is suggesting that pregnant women should not be concerned, but he gave NO evidence to support his assertions other than his assertion. Dr. Frist totally disagreed, based on evidence from researchers but Maher didn't listen to him.
This flu season there will be illness and death. There always is. But if you are in a high risk group, not to be vaccinated seems like a big risk to take. And whatever you decide, don't base it on Bill Maher. Base it on whatever good information you can get from sources you can trust. Hopefully those sources will be from physicians, clinicians and people who understand data and evidence. Not entertainers.
UPDATE: Apparently both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh agree with Bill Maher about the dangers of swine flu vaccine. Strange bedfellows indeed.