The Sciences

More antivax distortion: the Swine flu version

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitAug 18, 2009 6:24 PM


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The Daily Mail is a UK newspaper that has a tendency, oh, every so often, of printing articles that sometimes don't exactly represent reality. This is one such article. It links vaccinations for the swine flu to a neurological disorder called Guillaine-Barré Syndrome, or GBS. The article inflates the danger from vaccinations and may scare people into not getting their inoculations. And you know how I feel about that. Happily, a real doctor, my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella tears this apart in exquisite detail. Basically, GBS is an illness where a persons's immune system attacks the myelin protein sheath covering nerves. This can lead to nerve damage and other problems, as it did in the swine flu outbreak in 1976. However, in general, if caught early it can be treated and the patient can expect a nearly complete recovery. Why are vaccinations involved? As Dr. Novella says,

GBS can not only be triggered by the flu or other infections, but also by vaccines used to prevent infections. This is because vaccines are designed to stimulate the immune system, to provoke an immune response – which is what causes GBS. The risk of getting GBS from the flu vaccine is about 1 in a million. This is very reliable data, as we have been using the same basic technology for the flu vaccine for decades and we have reliable statistics on GBS as treatment requires hospitalization. Some cases may be missed if they are very mild (probably rare, but also if a case is too mild to be recognized then who cares) or from misdiagnosis (also probably rare as it is fairly easy to eventually confirm the diagnosis even if it may be difficult initially).

So yes, vaccinations can in fact trigger GBS. However, this is nothing new, despite the breathless Daily Mail article. It's been known for years and doctors are trained to keep an eye out for it. And how big a risk is this?

So the risks from the vaccine may vary slightly as new strains are being targeted, but over the last 30 years since the 1976 episode the risk of GBS has been steady at about 1 in a million – far less than the risk of the flu itself. Therefore the accusation that the upcoming H1N1 flu vaccine is untested is not a fair or accurate statement. It is highly tested.

So the antivax crew going around with their heads on fire screaming about the swine flu vaccine are, as usual, wrong, and presenting incredibly distorted "information". When you encounter anything the antivax people say, you really need to dig deeper than the info they give you. Like Apollo deniers and all the other antiscience crowd, they distort reality and don't tell you everything you need to know to understand the actual situation. Does medical science know everything? No, of course not. But it sure knows a whole lot more than the antivaxxers do. As Dr. Novella says:

The risk of GBS from the flu vaccine has been around 1 in a million – a very rare complication. The risk may not be any higher for the H1N1 vaccine. It is actually not known why the 1976 vaccine had a higher rate of GBS, but it has not been repeated in the last 30 years. Perhaps there is something about H1N1 that increases the risk of GBS, and for this reason monitoring GBS as the vaccine is administered is reasonable. So far, in preliminary tests of thousand of individuals with the new vaccine there has not been any increased risk of GBS, but this process in ongoing. There are no absolute guarantees in medicine – but the best evidence we have to date strongly suggests that the risk of the H1N1 flu is likely to be much greater than the risk of the vaccine itself.

That's something to always remember: despite the garbage conspiracy theory-toting antivaxxers are purveying, diseases tend to be a lot more dangerous than vaccination. Talk to your doctor, read what Steve Novella has to say, and get the real scoop on vaccination.

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