Swine flu: The phony war
June 2nd 2009, 10:28
What Doctors Don't Tell You had its genesis in a swine flu epidemic-33 years ago. In 1976, at the start of my career as a young editor at the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, one of my columnists was Dr Robert Mendelsohn, who wrote The People's Doctor. Mendelsohn had been entrenched in the very heart of the American medical establishment. Nevertheless, here was this kindly, mildmannered man, your prototypical Jewish grandfather, denouncing medicine as excessive and unproven. Every week, his column would savage yet another medical sacred cow.
In 1976, America was in the grip of an identical pandemic scare. It was the first time most of us had ever heard of swine flu. Prompted by his medical advisors, the then President Gerald Ford launched an ambitious programme to vaccinate every last person in the US, a programme that was on the scale of the polio vaccination of the 1940s and 1950s.
Mendelsohn was one of the few voices out there predicting that it would be a phony war. The rank and file ignored him. He also predicted that the swine flu vaccine wouldn't work and probably would kill people. Again, he was largely ignored. Most of America dutifully lined up to get their shots. A few months later, after 40 million people had been vaccinated, hundreds of them began to develop a strange form of paralysis-inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy-more commonly known as 'Guillain-Barr'e syndrome', after the two French neurologists, George Guillain and Jean Alexandre Barr'e, who first identified it in a World War I soldier. Guillain-Barr'e syndrome, also known as 'French polio', is an acute, highly debilitating, autoimmune response that affects the peripheral nervous system, starting with weakness in the legs and eventually sweeping up to the face. In virtually all forms of Guillain-Barr'e, the body is invaded by a foreign antigen, but the immune system mistakes its own nervous system as the enemy. Vaccination is the perfect inciting incident for this kind of tragic mistake.
In 1976, more than 500 people were permanently paralyzed and dozens of others immediately died-not from the flu itself, but from the 'cure'. In the midst of this disaster, we waited for swine flu to arrive. And waited. Not only was there no pandemic but, as with the current 'epidemic', it wasn't even communicable disease of any appreciable size. A tiny number contracted the disease, and only one person died. The drug company that had produced the vaccine literally got away with murder. The company had signed a 'no harm' clause, refusing to take financial responsibility for any side effects, leaving the US government to pick up the $93 million tab for the injured. This episode stayed with me over the years, sending tremors through the very foundation of my belief system and largely prompting me to carry on Mendelsohn's work through WDDTY. To me, it also showed that the very institutions we rely on for our health could not only get it seriously wrong, but could even walk away with fat pockets, completely unscathed.
This time, as our cover story this month details, there is evidence that the swine flu virus is a strange recombinant variety that almost appears to be man-made-and it just so happens that the one drug that officials claim saves the day are drugs like Tamiflu, the antiviral synthesized by Roche. By sheer coincidence, the US and the UK have millions of dollars' and pounds' worth of Tamiflu to hand, which they bought up to combat the avian flu that never arrived. And again, by sheer coincidence, the stocks of Tamiflu are very close to their sell-by date. As in 1976, this looks suspiciously like another phony war-although, this time, it's a far more sinister one.
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