Is There a Vaccine for Social Media?

With the upcoming segment “Socially Branded Journalism: Crossing the Generational Divide,” in which I talk with Dr. John Tantillo regarding social media and the “personal branding” phenomenon’s impact on the difference between opinion and research-based news, one cannot help but consider the ongoing debate regarding vaccination.

It is an area in which after considerable personal research I believe remains a complex matter of competing truths and partial-truths where both sides of the issue are to a certain degree obfuscated by self-interest.

Without calling into question the integrity of individual parties said interests are represented by contradictory messages including the following from Natural News.com, which promotes “Natural Health, Natural Living, Natural News.”  Specifically their series of articles from “Swine Flu Vaccine Mandate for NY Health Care Workers Halted by Judge’s Restraining Order” to “Flu vaccines revealed as the greatest quackery ever pushed in the history of medicine,” which would lead one to conclude that the heralding of vaccination as a medical breakthrough is little more than an effective PR campaign to line the pockets of a robber baron oligarchy.

Making seemingly inexhaustible references to other articles and expert studies such as ” Does the vaccine matter?” by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, which Natural News proclaimed “isn’t just brilliant . . . but stands as the best article on flu vaccines that has ever been published in the popular press,” cannot help but grab one’s attention.

Certainly the article’s authors posses the required credentials that would warrant the thoughtful consideration of their opinions – Shannon Brownlee is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Overtreated (2007), while Jeanne Lenzer is an investigative journalist and a frequent contributor to the British medical journal BMJ.

However, as I read the piece, an interesting fact jumped off the pages relating to what was referred to as the “healthy user effect.”

In the following excerpt from the article, a picture of a medical establishment bent on keeping the truth from an unwitting public is presented:

“When Lisa Jackson, a physician and senior investigator with the Group Health Research Center, in Seattle, began wondering aloud to colleagues if maybe something was amiss with the estimate of 50 percent mortality reduction for people who get flu vaccine, the response she got sounded more like doctrine than science.”

The story continued “People told me, ‘No good can come of [asking] this,’” she says. “‘Potentially a lot of bad could happen’ for me professionally by raising any criticism that might dissuade people from getting vaccinated, because of course, ‘We know that vaccine works.’ This was the prevailing wisdom.”

Against this ominous backdrop of establishment intimidation, Dr. Jackson pushed forward in her quest for the truth “to determine whether the mortality difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated might be caused by a phenomenon known as the healthy user effect.”

The basis or starting point for the study was to prove the hypothesis that “on average, people who get vaccinated are simply healthier than those who don’t, and thus less liable to die over the short term.”

At this stage the alarms for me personally started to sound.  A few months earlier regarding a totally unrelated issue on of all things public sector procurement policy, I was being interviewed by a reporter asking me why 85% of all government procurement initiatives fail to achieve the expected results.

As with vaccination, there are many factors that contribute to the outcome of failed government policy in this particular area.  However the origins or elemental roots I explained were based on the fact that bureaucracies have the tendency to decide on a course of action or outcome and then embark on a research strategy that is ultimately shaped to fit the desired conclusion or hypothesis.  In other words the focus is on proving the conclusion rather than determining the true facts.

While some might suggest that the accepted process is to establish an hypothesis and then use research to either prove or disprove its veracity, one cannot ignore the fact that such an exercise can be easily derailed when personal opinion or inclinations are introduced into the equation.

Read a little bit further and you will see what I mean.

Dr. Jackson’s research also made the assumption that “People who don’t get vaccinated may be bedridden or otherwise too sick to go get a shot. They may also be more likely to succumb to flu or any other illness, because they are generally older and sicker.”

To “test their thesis,” the Jackson team “combed through eight years of medical data on more than 72,000 people 65 and older,” examining who got shots and who didn’t.  They also looked at the mortality rates outside of flu season.

The findings were interesting in that outside of flu season, the”baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher” than those who were immunized.  This according to the Jackson team indicated that “healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the “frail elderly didn’t or couldn’t.”  Jackson concluded that the reduction in mortality credited to the flu vaccine was actually linked to other circumstances.

But here’s the thing, based on current research the H1N1 virus is not killing the elderly.  The highest rate of mortality according to one research university is with normally healthy children and adolescents who were not immunized.  What impact does this recent statistic have on the Jackson team’s findings re the “Healthy User Effect?”

On the opposite side of the debate, is a September 2008 post from the lbrb autism news science and opinion blog which references author Arthur Allen’s recounting of a tragic story in which the failure to immunize resulted in permanent lung damage for a new born who contracted whooping cough during the last trimester of her mother’s pregnancy.

The concern according to the autism blog that led to the mother’s decision not to be immunized was based on the fears associated with the mercury-laden preservative thimerosal in vaccines, which some theorized might be linked to autism.

Keeping in mind that this is a blog that is mostly written and maintained by people who have in many instances a direct and personal link to someone with autism, such as a parent, the writer actually lamented the autism community’s role in influencing peoples decision to avoid being immunized.  A point that was driven home by the following excerpt:

….the movement got a huge boost from the controversy over the mercury-laden preservative thimerosal, which some theorized might be linked to autism. That link has been disproven—by, if nothing else, the fact that autism rates remained steady after pediatricians and public health authorities told manufacturers to stop making thimerosal-containing childhood vaccines in 1999. But the anti-vaccine movement has kept going, finding ever new reasons to distrust immunization.

What these as well as other stories have accomplished is to demonstrate the fact that long held beliefs on either side of the issue have created an irresistible force -  immovable object scenario that has only served to polarize the general populace.  A populace I might add, that has come to expect its insights to be delivered through bite-sized, cursory news reports.

This is of course the blessing and the curse of social media, which is the perfect receptacle and carrier for headline grabbing sound bites that generally stimulate a call to action whether justified, or not.

In terms of the H1N1 virus, there are to be certain many other interesting facets that need to be considered over the weeks, months and even years ahead.  This includes the expectation that the U.S. will have the ability to produce vaccines domestically by 2011, and the emergence of cell-based vaccines which will cut production times in half thereby ensuring a more timely supply.

There is also the need to quantify the generational impact of past pandemics such as in 1957 when a new strain was introduced, and the 1967 strain which ultimately developed into what we refer to now as the seasonal variety in terms of its contribution to the present day mortality shifts.

Finally, we must also look to ourselves, and the individual consideration we have for one another.  According to one poll in Canada, 60% of respondents indicated that they would still go to work even if they displayed flu-like symptoms.  Of even greater concern is the fact that 23% of respondents said that they would go into work despite having the flu.  Based on these results some have suggested mandatory immunization.  I prefer good old fashioned thoughtfulness.

In the end, there are no easy answers.  However we do need answers as the ones ultimately caught in the middle of this debate are you, me and our families.

Or as one respondent to the PI Window on Business Poll that asked the question “Is the H1N1 Vaccine Safe?” commented:

“Here in Canada the adjuvanted vaccine is available first and they say they will get the non-adjuvanted one in a month. They claim we should not wait for the 2nd one and get the 1st one even though it has not been fully tested for safety in children! I don’t know what to do.”

This person is not alone.

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