This post grew out of a Facebook exchange on whether it’s a good idea to get vaccinated for the flu, both during and outside of pregnancy. The person I initiated a dialogue with posted a link to a fake news site arguing against receiving the annual influenza vaccine on the grounds that its risks have not been thoroughly demonstrated and its benefits overstated. The original poster, an expectant mother, appeared to draw from this the conclusion that they had made the right choice in foregoing the vaccine even after it was recommended by their doctor.
What follows is my lightly edited response, along with some additional resources for deeper study.
Mind the Source
Before rushing to certain conclusions being pushed by this story, we might want to first consider, among other things, the source. I immediately recognized this story when I saw it pop up in my feed, because it was debunked three years ago. Before I share a bit about the efficacy and importance of the flu vaccine, let’s take a quick look at the sources behind this story.
Check the date. The story in the linked article was first published by a fake news/conspiracy site called RealFarmacy.com back in 2014 and has since been circulated by a number of other fake news sites. The linked article appears to have been published just last month and is in turn based entirely on a December 2015 article by yournewswire.com. (These sites tend to feed off each other and recirculate clickbait-y stories without any notice to the reader.)
Yournewswire is a well known fake news/conspiracy site with a long record of airing inaccurate, debunked and outrageous information. Notably, it was one of the websites that promoted Pizzagate in the run-up to the 2016 election. It spread a story that 25 million fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton and that Bernie Sanders unendorsed Clinton. Similarly ridiculous claims have been peddled by the site, including the claim that Hitler faked his suicide and instead fled to Argentina, and the claim that the DARPA program HAARP employs weather modification technologies on a global scale (even going so far as to claim recently that reputed physicist Michio Kaku blamed Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on HAARP, despite the program being shuttered in 2014).
The site has a history of trafficking in 9/11 “truther” and Illuminati memes. You can find a full archive of their debunked stories at Snopes. CBS News has also ID’d the site as a hoax site. Lastly, FactCheck.org runs a database of fake news websites, and yournewswire.com is on the list.
Consult the evidence. It seems pretty clear the websites promoting this story are awfully suspect, but how about the underlying claims? What about the original source on which these stories are based? Did all of these hoax sites magick their claims out of thin air, or is there in fact a “there” there?
As it turns out, they all terminate in a 2013 article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by one Peter Doshi. Doshi has a long history of advancing unfounded anti-vaccination and miscellaneous conspiratorial claims. Notably, Doshi signed a petition denying the link between HIV and AIDS and has spoken at a number of anti-vaxx conferences over the years. He has repeatedly challenged the idea that influenza represents a major public health threat, despite the fact that it infects tens of millions of people (3-5 million cases of severe illness) and causes 250-500,000 deaths every year, including 20,000 in the U.S. alone. He has also accused the CDC of inflating mortality rates and engaging in a “marketing of fear.”
Importantly, Doshi has no scientific training in any of the relevant fields, including immunology, virology, epidemiology, microbiology, or public health, and has published no research in any of these areas. He lacks the necessary background in scientific research to speak authoritatively either about the influenza vaccine in particular or vaccination and public health more generally. He’s an anthropologist who simply completed a fellowship at Hopkins. You can find a more comprehensive post at Skeptical Raptor debunking Mr. Doshi and his 2013 article.
The linked article also mentions a Russell Blaylock, who as Snopes points out has a sordid history of spreading dubious and conspiratorial claims, including claims related to chemtrails, aspartame, cookware and dental amalgams. Blaylock is also on record as claiming that the ACA (Obamacare) was a depopulation effort and that H1N1 is a man-made virus engineered by the “Illuminati Depopulation Agenda.” Blaylock is a regular guest on Alex Jones’ show. I trust that is all we need to know about Mr. Blaylock.
You can find Snopes’ debunking of this story here, where they also explode the myth about vaccines being moneymakers for pharmaceutical companies.
Finally, Johns Hopkins actually issued an official statement about this story after the pronounced traffic it received, dismissing the original article as a “rumor”:
Johns Hopkins Medicine in no way endorses an article published in July 2013 by a former fellow at our school of medicine questioning the validity of the annual flu vaccine. The writer has no scientific affiliation with Johns Hopkins, nor is he employed by any of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
Mind the Science
As many of the sources I link to above emphasize, the benefits of flu vaccination in terms of reducing the risk of catching the flu have been overwhelmingly established. It remains the case that the annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent transmission. According to the CDC, the latest evidence indicates that the annual flu vaccine reduces children’s risk of ending up in a pediatric ICU by 74 percent. The agency reported in 2013 that 90 percent of children who died from the flu in the previous season had not been vaccinated.
Vaccine efficacy remains high even when there is not a “good match” between the wild virus and the vaccine compound (i.e., a suboptimal match between the viral antigen and the circulating strains). The seasonal and annual flu vaccine treatments developed by the CDC typically contain antigens specific to not just one but three or four separate viral strains. This “trivalent” or “quadrivalent” approach can confer cross-protection from similar strains, even if the injection isn’t a perfect match for an individual strain. The better the match and the quicker populations are vaccinated, the stronger the herd immunity effect.
There is also no evidence in favor of spacing out vaccines or delaying beyond the recommended practice. Indeed, you are actually endangering your child by prolonging the period of vulnerability to disease.
Like the person who posted this article, many expecting mothers raise additional questions and concerns over whether it is safe to vaccinate while pregnant. Here again, the science is firmly established in terms of both safety and efficacy. In fact, the recommendation to vaccinate is stronger while pregnant because pregnant women are not only at higher risk of catching the flu, but are more likely to undergo severe cases of the flu as well. And without the acquired antibodies facilitated by the vaccine and passed from mother to fetus, the child is less protected from circulating strains once they are born.
The long and the short of it is this — anyone over the age of 6 months should annually get vaccinated for influenza. This is an accepted recommendation by every national and international scientific society with an interest in public health and pandemic prevention. Moreover, vaccines in general (not just influenza) are safe, and one of the greatest developments in public health history.
We’ve seen in recent years outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles because uninformed and misinformed parents chose to waive vaccination for their children. This fueled its resurgence by short-circuiting the herd immunity such protection confers. What these parents failed to realize is that before the measles vaccine was introduced, the disease killed 2.6 million people every year, including 380 American children every year. The vaccine brought the former figure down to 134,200 and the latter figure down to an average of one per year (per 2015 data). Between 2000 and 2015, this single vaccine has saved an estimated 20.3 million lives.
Going against the science isn’t merely a personal decision, it’s a public health risk. Parents have a social responsibility to think beyond the orbit of their immediate family and consider the safety of others who depend on the immunized for their safety. Many people are either too young or too old to be vaccinated or are unable to be vaccinated due to physiological concerns, such as immunocompromised children. When parents forego vaccinations for their child, they are directly increasing the risks not only for their child but for the unvaccinated community writ large.
Conspiracists and “fake experts” like Doshi & Co. often play hide the ball when it comes to vaccine efficacy by setting up a false dichotomy with “perfectly effective” on one end and “actively dangerous” on the other. They tend to start with an uncontroversial claim like “vaccines don’t work for everyone” then proceed to an uncontroversially false claim like “the flu vaccine isn’t effective.” What each of these folks have in common is the utter lack of evidence for their claims, and the throngs of uninitiated consumers gullible enough to fall for them.
When someone shares a story from a fake news site as evidence against commonly accepted public health advice, we have good reason for concern. This action suggests the person isn’t using the facts about vaccination to make their decision. And without facts, what else are they to rely on besides a gut feeling or anecdotes from friends, family and online strangers? When citizens subordinate the best available scientific evidence to personal whim and instinct, this has historically led to poor and often deadly outcomes. We have every right—and indeed every ethical incentive—to push back against misinformation and those disseminating it, no matter how well meaning they might be.
FactCheck.org has a helpful resource on vetting sources and honing your fake news barometer: How to Spot Fake News.
This article has been cross-posted from Waiving Entropy.