The Mail’s latest antivaccine scare

Old habits die hard, and for the Mail that means no matter how many times their stories are debunked, their antivaccination scaremongering will never end.

Today’s Mail on Sunday carries the story “Experts admit swine flu jab ‘may cause’ deadly nerve disease“. Note how the phrase “may cause” is in quotes – odd, since the experts in question didn’t use the phrase. In fact, they said the opposite.

The Mail‘s story comes from a routine newsletter from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) called Drug Safety Update, which carries news about safety tests, urgent recalls, new drugs and so on. One of the articles in this month’s update explains the infrastructure that the MHRA put in place to monitor adverse reactions to the swine flu vaccines Pandemrix and Celvapan. Not especially gripping stuff, especially since the conclusion they come to is:

It was evident from our analyses early in the vaccination programme, including similar analyses across the EU, that there was no clear indication of a large increased risk of GBS [Guillaine-Barré syndrome] similar to that seen with swine flu vaccines in the US in 1976. To date, there remains no confirmed evidence to indicate that Pandemrix or Celvapan is associated with an increased risk of GBS.

Of course, this is a scientific document, and any proper scientific document includes caveats. So, sure enough, it continues:

However, given the uncertainties in the available information and as with seasonal flu vaccines, a slightly elevated risk of GBS following H1N1 vaccines cannot be completely ruled out. The benefits of vaccination would still outweigh any small vaccine-attributable risk of GBS.

That first sentence is what the Mail builds the article around entirely, ignoring completely the second. Just as they did with the Royal Society’s climate change advice a few weeks back, they take one statement out of context from an earlier document, in this case a leaked letter from the Health Protection Agency – “There is no evidence to suggest an increased risk of GBS from the vaccines being developed to fight the current pandemic” – compare it to another out-of-context statement made more recently – “Given the uncertainties in the available information and as with seasonal flu vaccines, a slightly elevated risk of GBS following H1N1 vaccines cannot be completely ruled out” – and claim this represents a U-turn in opinion.

Without the original letter itself, which the Mail curiously neglected to actually quote from when it “leaked” it, I can’t know for sure what the HPA actually said. However, going just on that one, out-of-context sentence, here’s a more accurate summary of the change in medical opinion:

2009: “There is no evidence to suggest an increased risk of GBS from the vaccines being developed to fight the current pandemic

2010: “To date, there remains no confirmed evidence to indicate that Pandemrix or Celvapan is associated with an increased risk of GBS.

Guillaine-Barré syndrome is a terrifying condition, but for the Mail to pass that fear on to vaccines that have been proven to be safe is not just misleading but downright harmful. This article has come out in mid-Autumn, just at the time when the NHS’s seasonal flu vaccination scheme reaches its peak. If even one person decides not to get the jab because of this article, that’s one more potential infection this winter. One more potential flu death.

Shame on the Mail.

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  1. #1 by Press Not Sorry on Sunday, 17th October 2010 - 13:48 UTC

    I believe that, come the end of flu season, The Mail should be under an obligation to report on whether they have affected uptake of flu vaccine, comparing percentage uptake from last year and this year.

    Next, they should report the number of deaths attributable to flu, or it’s complications, amongst those that have not been vaccinated, again as a percentage. They could do the same with those that have been vaccinated.

    Whilst this would be a crude way to measure the effect of their scaremongering, at least we would get an idea of whether The Mail has, directly or indirectly, damaged people’s health.

  2. #2 by GrahamH on Sunday, 17th October 2010 - 18:43 UTC

    may be the ‘daily fail’ should come with a warning!
    “reading medical stories in this paper could seriously damage your health!”

  3. #3 by Tom A on Monday, 18th October 2010 - 16:42 UTC

    It’s also worth noting the article has attracted the anti-vax crowd, as witnessed by the hundreds of red arrows for posts which make no ideological statements but deal entirely in science

  1. What's been going on? | Minority Thought – Minority Thought

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