I'm no vaccine evangelist. They have caused health problems in the past and I'm sure they will do so again in the future; but the odds are stacked in favour of having them. You can see from this delightful visual representation of the safety of the American HPV vaccine how the risks of having it compare to not having it, and how much more likely you are to die in other freak events than from having the jab.
That's not to say that all vaccines are safe forever, of course not. But given that I'm no scientist, what I'm more interested in is how people's perception of vaccines has been altered by what they might have read in the press recently. You'll remember that the Express, wrongly, said this:
and later retracted it after the professor involved stated quite categorically they hadn't said anything of the sort. There was an apology but it was tucked away neatly inside; the original scare story was splashed onto the front page in 130-point print. Which one do you think more people took notice of?
It's not just the Express, of course, who like to demonise vaccines - they're pretty much alongside Muslims and single mums in the tabloid ghost train. Paul Dacre a few months ago told a parliamentary committee that his newspaper hadn't been involved in scaremongering over MMR, but that's hard to reconcile with the coverage his newspaper gave to the vaccine. Was it really investigative journalism trying to uncover the truth, or was there a line that was crossed to try and ramp up the fear, in a way that, say, Private Eye didn't, even though they pursued the MMR issue for over a year?
It's not so much one story in particular - appalling though that Sunday Express effort was - but it's a relentless pounding of the issue, from one side only. I think that's ok if you know that someone is taking a particular stance on something, but when it's a newspaper which purports to be looking at stories objectively and reporting facts, then something begins to smell quite badly. These recent newspaper headlines:
JAB 'AS BAD AS THE CANCER'
NORMAL FLU JABS 'DOUBLE THE RISK OF CATCHING SWINE BUG'
CHAOS OVER CANCER JAB FOR GIRLS
HEALTH TRUST CLAIMS CERVICAL CANCER JAB GIRL COULD HAVE DIED FROM UNDERLYING MEDICAL CONDITION
CANCER VACCINE PROGRAMME IN CHAOS AFTER DEATH OF GIRL, 14, HOURS AFTER HAVING JAB
add to a snowballing of concern and panic over HPV in particular but jabs in general. I can understand why there is concern over the swift introduction of the swine flu vaccine, but what I do wish is that newspapers would give real information, rather than just licking their lips at the panic-porn aspect and ramping up the fear rather than sticking to what is true and what isn't.
So we come to today's Mail on Sunday, and this story about the swine flu vaccine being added to other childhood vaccinations.
The swine flu vaccine will be given to children at the same time as routine jabs – despite the fact there is no evidence the combination is safe.
There's also 'no evidence' the combination of the swine flu vaccine and a banana is safe, or half a pint of bitter, or a lump of coal, or... do you see what I mean? That's a distinctly odd way of putting it - unless you're attempting to portray the combination as potentially unsafe - but there's no evidence for that either.
There are fears that children will be at risk of unknown side effects because safety trials into using the jabs together have yet to be carried out.
The plan has also added to concerns about ‘overloading’ young immune systems with multiple inoculations.
Well, so long as they quote anyone other than Dr Richard Halvorsen then I'll be concerned. Anyone but him, really. He seems, unfortunately, to be a bit of a rent-a-quote on anything to do with vaccines, despite his theories not having any published science behind them. He's the Tax Payers Alliance of health stories - if you're pushed for time, you're desperate for a quote and you haven't found anyone else to back up your argument, he's just a phone call away.
But I'm sure the Mail will have found someone else to come forward with these fears, won't they. It won't just be Halvorsen, a GP who is proud to say he's trained in homoeopathy and acupuncture, will it?
GP Dr Richard Halvorsen, medical director of the Babyjabs clinic in Central London, said last night: ‘There is not a shred of evidence about the potential effects of combining all these childhood jabs with the swine flu vaccine. They simply have not had time to carry out tests.’
Oh. I see.
There's also a quote from JABS, who are the other go-to guys on vaccinations (when you want a negative story), and a slither of rebuttal from the Government bolted on to the end of the story:
The Department of Health said last night: ‘It is irresponsible to suggest the UK would use a vaccine without careful consideration of safety issues'
Pissing in the wind there, my friend, whoever you are. Responsibility doesn't come high up the list of attributes for a health reporter nowadays - it's all about the scares.
What interests me is the fear displayed in the comments section underneath the article. Now I know that comments aren't always the best place to find a genuine cross-section of views, but some of these are quite enlightening to understand where people are coming from. Particularly this one:
swine flue has paralysed people, its killed them, it has not been tested and it is potentially dangerous, there is no dangerous flue, who says so WHOworld health organisation so why are they pushing on us a deadly vacine when the guy who designed the vaccine the top expert says ITS POTENTIALLY MORE DEADLY THAN THE FLUE ITSELF. THE GOVERNMENT IS LYING TO US IN A DESPERATE MEASURE TO GET MONEY TO BIG PHARMA, A LOT OF PEOPLE (JUST LIKE IN THE 70s)oh didnt you know this happened before, in the 70s lots of people were killed and paralysed. take ths shot give it to you kids it s the
SQUALENE IN THE VACCINE MAY GIVE YOU GULF WAR SYNDROME. WHICH MEANS IT MAY BE LIKE BEING INJECTED DIRECTLY WITH AIDS. WHY WERE 70% OF THE POPULATION OF SOME AFRICAN STATES WITH AIDS AFTER UN INOCULATION PROGRAMS THROUGH POLIO VACCINES IN THE 90S WHEN NO ONE IN EUROPE HAS AIDS JUST IN AFRICA. THINK ABOUT IT.
- liam, belfast, 18/10/2009 0:22
I want to focus on one particular thing this person says - let's ignore the Big Pharma stuff and the capital letters. He quite confidently states that "the guy who designed the vaccine, the top expert, says it's potentially more deadly than the flu itself". Now you know, and I know, where he got that titbit from - the front page of the Sunday Express the other week.
That's how something inaccurate can become accepted as fact, and how a weaselly retraction makes no difference when you've splashed a misleading headline onto your front page. Once it's out there, people will see it as fact. It's a good reason to be careful about what you write, if you work for a national newspaper - it implies a bit of responsibility and integrity might be required for the job. Somewhere along the line, a few people have forgotten about that, and that's a sadness.
Liam's comment, by the way, is voted enthusiastically into the positive by fellow readers of the story. I don't know what that says about Mail readers and their attitudes towards vaccinations, or whether the story has attracted anti-vaxx people like bluebottles to a freshly-minted turd.
But what bothers me is that if, one day, a vaccine causes genuine health concerns, how are we going to know? All this crying wolf will make some people sceptical of everything to do with vaccines, and others unable to tell when something's really serious. But that is the environment our press has created.