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July 2018 (Vol. 3 Issue 5)

Getting the vax facts wrong

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Bryan Hubbard is Publisher and co-editor of WDDTY. He is a former Financial Times journalist. He is a Philosophy graduate of London University. Bryan is also the author of several books, including The Untrue Story of You and Secrets of the Drugs Industry.

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Getting the vax facts wrong

February 28th 2018, 15:43
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The media is pulled by the forces of simplification and sensationalism, says American sociologist Robert McChesney. I'd add a third 'S' to the list: suppression. All three are amply exercised when it comes to reporting on vaccinations, a touchy subject that has had journalists tying themselves up in knots for decades.

Simplification and sensationalism were the hallmarks of the coverage of gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his discovery that the triple MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine was causing inflammation in the guts of a small group of children, and which, he postulated, could presage autism.

Vaccination rates started to fall, and so researchers had to undo the damage done by Wakefield's press coverage by 'proving' that he was wrong, and that the MMR didn't cause autism. Of course, he never exactly said it did, but that's simplification and sensationalism for you.

Cowed after being caught committing the first two 'S's, the media went into suppression mode, and now can't write a bad word about vaccinations, even when it's in the public interest that they do so.

Medical journalist Rob Wipond has noted the phenomenon with the reporting of a worrying reaction to the flu vaccine.1

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had discovered that women vaccinated against the pandemic pH1N1 flu strain in 2009, and who were vaccinated again a year later, were nearly eight times more likely to suffer a miscarriage within 28 days of receiving the second vaccination.2

Pretty damning stuff, not that you'd realize it from the media coverage that followed. The health website, STAT, announced the study with the headline that the risk of miscarriage 'may' increase after a flu shot—when the study seemed pretty definitive, Wipond points out—while the Associated Press, which feeds many news outlets, announced that the study "prompts call to examine flu vaccine and miscarriage," when this had been the purpose of the study in the first place.

The Washington Post displayed the greatest vacillation in the face of bad news with a double headline. It first declared that researchers "find hint of a link" between the flu shot and miscarriage—although a 7.7-times increased risk might be considered slightly more than a hint—but even this mealy-mouthed heading proved too much for the Post's sub-editors, who quickly changed it to: "What to know about a study of flu vaccine and miscarriage."3

Wipond discovered the CDC had set the news response by briefing journalists from the three news organizations beforehand in a private meeting. They met lead author James Donahue, who told the British Medical Journal: "We wanted to make sure that they got a full story on this and carried the right messages—the messages that we think
are important."

Duly briefed by the expert, none of the journalists even mentioned the 7.7-times increased risk in their reports, and suggested that "no knowledgeable person could reasonably interpret the study as a serious cause for concern." They all pointed out several times throughout their pieces that experts consider the vaccine to be safe, and that pregnant women should still go ahead and get the shot.

In other words, Donahue told them there was no cause for concern, and the journalists duly complied.

Donahue was right in one regard: large-scale, mass-population reviews—known as epidemiological studies—can't absolutely prove that one thing causes another, because there are so many variables at play, such as age and lifestyle choices. By the same measure, the same studies can't prove that vaccinations definitively prevent disease—because, again, factors such as hygiene, nutrition and sanitation could have just as important an impact—but it's surprising how rarely this is pointed out.

Other experts, such as Chris Del Mar, a professor of public health at Bond University in Australia and editor for the independent Cochrane group, believed the journalists did a terrible disservice to the public. The vaccine isn't even effective, he said, and while there is a risk of miscarriage if a woman develops flu while she's pregnant, the chances of that happening are slight compared to the risk of miscarriage posed by getting vaccinated.

While sensationalism and simplification are not desirable, especially when it comes to medical news, suppression isn't much better.

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