The vaccine backlash is a risk to public health

The worst possible way to respond to a mutating flu virus is to dismiss vaccinations


At the end of 2014, there was concern that potential vaccinations against the Ebola virus could be slow to develop, because fear and suspicion would make people in the affected countries hesitant about taking part in trials.

The reluctance of West Africans to take a perceived risk in the midst of humanitarian tragedy is understandable. With widespread uncertainty about how the disease is transmitted, and the presence of Western doctors inevitably associated with high death tolls, it makes perfect sense that the vaccines were viewed with suspicion.

What makes less sense, to me at least, is the backlash that is currently taking place in the US and the UK about vaccines which public health services have relied on for years.

In California a measles outbreak – the state now has 107 confirmed cases – has exposed the vehemence of anti-vaccine movements in the US. On Monday the California Department of Health was forced to issue a warning to parents after unconfirmed reports that some were intentionally exposing their unvaccinated children to other children with the virus in an attempt at ‘natural’ vaccination.

In 2014 the World Health Organisation estimated that between 2000 and 2012, 13.8 million deaths have been prevented by measles vaccination, with reported cases declining by 77 per cent.

After the MMR/autism link research, which has been conclusively discredited and retracted, public figures like Jenny McCarthy have fuelled a growing anti-vaccination movement which is causing real concern amongst health professionals. By arrogantly acting against scientific consensus, parents are putting their children, and untold others, at risk.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail writes today that:

“The highest winter death toll for 15 years has followed the flu vaccination fiasco in which millions of people were given useless jabs.”

It’s not that the figures are wrong – so far in the 2014/15 flu season there have been 481 outbreaks (349 in care homes, 67 in schools, 60 in hospitals and five in other settings), and the mortality rate has been higher than usual this season, with the flu jab providing as little as three per cent effectiveness. It’s the claim that the jab is ‘useless’ which is irresponsible.

It takes six months to produce a new vaccine. This means that by the time the World Health Organisation had identified a new strain of influenza A (H3N2) last March, it was too late to change the production of the vaccine. Although the new strain has been the predominant one, it has not been the only one, meaning that the jab still provides protection against some winter illnesses.

Dr Onkar Sahota, a London GP, says:

“There will still be some strains which are prevented by the flu jab, but not all of them. It’s still worth getting the flu jab as it will still be working against some strains and certainly doesn’t do any harm.

“The way the flu vaccine is produced means this kind of problem is always a possibility. Until we get the scientific advances necessary to reduce the production time for flu inoculations, mutations in the flu virus run the risk of making the treatments less effective.” 

Headlines like those in the Mail and the Telegraph are misleading because they suggest that the vaccine, not the virus, is at fault. GPs continue to recommend that over-65s, pregnant women and people with certain chronic diseases get the jab. If these kinds of vulnerable people stop bothering to be vaccinated, they risk impacting herd immunity; this is now a real concern in California.

Furthermore, the negative press that the vaccines are receiving is detracting from the bigger problems the health service faces. It is hard to predict the way that a virus will mutate, but we can predict that mutations are a possibility. Therefore, the unprecedented burden that A&E departments have faced this winter could have been prevented. As Dr Sahota says:

“Whilst the reduced effectiveness of the flu vaccine is undoubtedly causing some problems, the government’s attempt to blame it for the problems we’ve faced in A&Es and hospitals recently is deeply cynical. The Department of Health always knew this was a possibility and should have planned accordingly.”

In 2000, the Department of Health was heavily criticised because only a third of over-65s were having the flu vaccination. In 2014/15, more than 70 per cent of this group have been vaccinated. This behavioural change will, overall, prove to be good for public health, but misleading headlines can easily turn back the clock.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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