Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

CDC, Measles, and Propaganda

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invokes measles  to make you feel guilty and frightened.

The agency announced on Thursday that there have been 175 measles cases in the U.S. in 2013, whereas only about 60 are seen in a typical year lately. Measles, the CDC press release says, “still threatens health security.”

Are they joking?, you might wonder. At a time when nearly 50 million Americans can’t get medical care because they don’t have insurance, and about 30 million will continue to lack health insurance even if the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented — at this point in American history, do the wonks at CDC really expect Americans to believe that an extra 100-odd measles cases represents a threat to the nation’s health?

No, they are not joking. CDC Director Frieden says:

“A measles outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere.”

That sentence doesn’t exactly parse in standard English, but we get the point: be on guard, be on edge.

“With patterns of global travel and trade,”

Frieden continues,

“disease can spread nearly anywhere within 24 hours.”

This is not true, but truth isn’t at issue. Frieden is settling comfortably into his role as Minister of Propaganda for the unending War Against Risk, that existential danger to our well-being in which we are all supposed to be foot soldiers.

The media have responded as per their wont.  Measles is still a threat, there’s a spike in cases,  it’s about lack of vaccination, and so forth.

Here, the real story is that there’s no grave threat. There were over 100 measles cases in the U.S. in 2008 and over 200 in 2011. So it’s not at all clear that this year’s toll is out of the ordinary. And, of the 175 cases in 2013, most were acquired abroad. Measles transmission in the U.S. occurred in outbreaks among people who weren’t vaccinated for religious reasons, including 57 people in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn who were infected by a traveler who acquired measles virus in England, and 22 in North Carolina infected by a traveler returning from India.

That these outbreaks occurred among people who were not vaccinated reveals little about vaccination campaigns in the U.S. — religious exemptions have long been recognized for people who do not want their children to undergo immunization. And they have not been severe: a pregnant woman infected with measles in the Brooklyn outbreak miscarried, but there is no way to know whether measles was the cause. One adult was hospitalized with respiratory complications in the North Carolina outbreak.

It’s probably a good idea to be immunized against measles. Measles rarely causes severe illness, but not never. And there is plenty of measles in the world, although it is extremely rare in the U.S.  Immunization is like washing your kitchen counter tops.

But there’s no reason to sign up for Dr. Frieden’s army. Measles doesn’t threaten our health security (when it comes to threats to Americans’ health security, nothing comes close to Congressional Republicans!). We do not need to report our neighbors to the authorities if they aren’t getting their kids immunized. And we really don’t need any more inspections at airports. Our way of life is not under siege.

Against Universal Flu Immunization

In a strong piece at CNN online yesterday, Jen Christensen points out that no European countries expect the entire population to be immunized against flu — unlike the US, where everyone over the age of 6 months is urged to get flu vaccine every year.

Why does CDC recommend (based on advice by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in 2010) that all Americans — from infancy on up — get immunized against flu?

A few possibilities:

1.  Public health benefit?

No.  Over the past twenty years, flu-vaccine coverage — the proportion of the population that is immunized — has been going up progressively.  But flu hospitalization and mortality rates have been basically constant.  If mass immunization had any public health value, those rates should go down as coverage goes up

(A technical note: this means that coverage remains below the threshold needed to reduce influenza transmission population-wide, i.e., it isn’t high enough for herd immunity.  But that’s the point.  In order to be of public health benefit, flu vaccine would have to be accepted by almost everybody, every year.  And even that might not be enough:  For a nice explanation of why the efficacy of flu vaccine is limited, see Vincent Racaniello’s blog post.)

2.  Exceptional efficacy of the vaccine?

No.  Based on an observational study of acute respiratory illness patients published this month, the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine is 55% against illness caused by influenza type A (which accounts for about 80% of flu cases).  Effectiveness is 70% against type B.  Overall, the chances of being protected against symptomatic flu are less than two out of three.

Jefferson and colleagues found that the overall efficacy of  flu vaccines at reducing influenza A or B infection in children aged 2-16 is only about 65%, and that inactivated vaccines (i.e., the usual injection) had little impact on serious illness or hospitalization from flu-like conditions in this age group.

As with this month’s observational study, Jefferson et al.’s meta-analysis of multiple studies on flu immunization found that the inactivated vaccine had about 73% efficacy at preventing infection in healthy adults — but that efficacy can be as low as about 50% in years when the vaccine isn’t well-matched to the season’s circulating viruses.

Importantly, the Jefferson studies found that effectiveness of immunization — the prevention of serious illness or hospitalization from influenza-like illness — is very low.

There’s no sound public health rationale for encouraging everyone to be immunized against flu every year.

People who are likely to develop serious complications if they are infected can benefit from immunization.  But for most of us, immunization only reduces (by two-thirds) the already rather small chance of infection with influenza.  And it doesn’t protect us much from serious respiratory illness during flu season.

I commented in 2011 on public officials striving to help pharmaceutical companies profit from flu fears. And that’s what we’re seeing again this season — with exaggerated warnings and declarations of flu emergencies. Even though the latest national summary from CDC shows that less than 30% of all influenza-like illness is actually caused by flu this season — and that’s likely an overestimate, since it’s based on testing of more severe cases of acute respiratory illness.  And the surveillance data suggest that the season’s flu outbreak might already be past its peak.

Get immunized against flu if you’re worried.  But keep in mind that vaccination against flu is not going to help the public’s health, and it isn’t highly likely to help yours — it’s primarily your contribution to the profits of Sanofi-Pasteur, Novartis, GSK, or Merck.


Profiting from Preparedness

Don’t miss Helen Epstein’s brilliant exposé in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. She shows how the profit motive shapes the “preparedness” industry — worth $10 billion worldwide in 2009 (the year of the Flu Pandemic That Wasn’t).

I’ve covered the profit-motivated thinking behind vaccine recommendations generally and specifically with regard to flu immunization.  Epstein’s main interest is in the role of pharmaceutical companies in promoting oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and other neuraminidase inhibitors as public health responses to flu fears.  Her story features the brilliant work of Tom Jefferson and colleagues, and the shady behavior of the global biotech firm Roche in trying to block Jefferson et al.’s efforts to investigate the safety of neuraminidase-blocking agents.

Jefferson was lead author on the Cochrane Collaborations’ main paper on neuraminidase inhibitors for flu prevention and treatment.   But when reports of adverse effects of these drugs emerged and he and colleagues tried to re-assess the underlying reports on which the effectiveness of oseltamivir and similar drugs was based, Jefferson was stymied.  His colleague, Peter Doshi, related the story in BMJ.   The journal’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, along with Cochrane director Mike Clarke, wrote in an accompanying editorial:

The review and a linked investigation undertaken jointly by the BMJ and Channel 4 News cast doubt not only on the effectiveness and safety of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) but on the system by which drugs are evaluated, regulated, and promoted.

The take-home message is that while there is evidence that Tamiflu can be effective in treating flu, the evidence is shakier than it seems, and troubling reports point to potentially serious adverse effects.

How does a questionable medication get to be the basis (or part of the basis) for public health policy?  The answer is that the policy makers and the money makers work hand in hand.

Maryann Napoli at Center for Medical Consumers tried to point out the troubling links between WHO and big pharma last year, and Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine brought it up around the same time.

But most of the coverage focuses on the involvement of individual scientists and/or physicians who are receiving payments or other forms of remuneration directly from drug companies.  It’s not hard to police such straightforward conflicts — and so it was easy for Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, to say last year that “at no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.”

Epstein’s great contribution is in showing that obvious conflicts of interest aren’t the main way that for-profit companies influence policy.  It’s done through stonewalling, as Jefferson encountered when he tried to examine Roche’s data.  It’s done through widely accepted collusions.

For instance, the CDC Foundation — “Helping CDC Do More, Faster” is its motto — is a nonprofit organization, created by the U.S. Congress, whose job is to

connect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with private-sector organizations and individuals to build public health programs that make our world healthier and safer.

Of course, calling them “private-sector organizations” suggests that these are not-for-profits — and some, like the District of Columbia Department of Health, the Medical College of South Carolina, and UNICEF, really are.  But most of the private-sector collaborators who are linked with CDC’s policy makers by the CDC Foundation are big corporations.  They include all the giants of Pharma world:  Merck, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi-Pasteur, etc.  (They also include some who are just giants:  Google, Dell, YUM! Brands, and IBM, to name a few.)

So when CDC’s updated flu response plan now recommends antiviral (i.e., neuraminidase-inhibitor) treatment “as soon as possible,” it’s worth asking whether this is because it has any public health value (answer:  no) or just because CDC is cozy with companies that make money when people get sick.

Life Expectancy Goes Up but Risk-reduction lectures Continue

Bravo! to Rob Lyons at Spiked. Since it’s now apparent that life expectancy has increased almost everywhere and is at historic high levels in much of the developed world, Lyons asks the logical question:  why is the public health system still scolding everyone about what people eat and how fat the average person is?

A paper by David Leon in this month’s International Journal of Epidemiology showed the dramatic increase in life expectancy — the median age at death, that is.  It has reached over 85 years for women in Japan, but it’s high even in countries where longevity was relatively low a generation ago.  Cheeringly, US life expectancy at birth is now 78 years; in the UK it’s 80.  And it’s even higher in some countries of western continental Europe.  Here are the graphs for different parts of the world from Leon’s paper, showing trends since 1970:

Life expectancy since 1970

Lyons has gone after the anti-obesity crusaders before (as well as related topics at his smart blog on contemporary food confusion, Panic On A Plate).  Now, he’s particularly disturbed by the sermonizing about eating. “You can’t even have a pie and a pint without someone telling you it will kill you, it seems,” Lyons writes at Spiked.

And, really, it’s even worse than that — because it’s not just eating that’s the subject of the lecturing.  It might be true that you will live longer if you give up smoking, cut your salt intake, drop your BMI down to 24.99, exercise four times per week for at least 20 minutes each time, get immunized against flu and human papillomavirus, drink in moderation, and take naps.  But unfortunately there’s not a bit of evidence that any of that — apart from the decline in smoking — has contributed to increasing longevity.

And of course, even with smoking cessation, there’s no telling whether it would make any difference to you — only on average.

So why are the public health messages so far away from what really matters — basically, prenatal care, postnatal care, and wealth (with its concomitant, standard of living)?  Well, there’s a puzzle.

What’s the point of having an industry whose main aim is to make sure that people are constantly in fear that they are doing something that will kill them — even as it becomes apparent that most of what people do is only making us live longer?   Lyons calls it Good News Omission Mentality Syndrome (GNOMES).

I ask you:  could it have something to do with control?  And the desire to sell products?

Vaccine Crusaders Arm for Battle

I’m not sure I want to feel sorry for Andrew Wakefield — a nudnik, possibly even a charlatan.   And although I worry that MMR vaccine, especially as part of the intense dosing schedule for childhood vaccination overall, might have bad effects on some kids’ immune systems,  I’m not categorically opposed to immunization.

Still, it’s hard to avoid wondering:  is Wakefield right when he alleges that he’s being persecuted by the vaccine industry?

Last week, I discussed the BMJ article by Brian Deer asserting that Wakefield’s research was fraudulent, and the accompanying editorial supporting immunization.  At that point, I thought that the BMJ pieces were, together,  a one-off.

I was wrong.  In fact, it looks this week like the vaccine industry has armed some of its main warriors and sent them out to do battle.

The Battle Against Anti-Vaccinationism

In the Jan. 13th issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, two powerful chiefs, Gregory Poland and Robert M. Jacobson, claim that there’s an “age-old struggle” to make vaccines available.  Their aim is to vilify the “antivaccinationists” who “have done significant harm to the public health.” [Note the use of the holy article in this phrase, to signal just how sacred these warrior-priests hold “the” public health to be.]

The Poland-Jacobson piece is pure propaganda.  Theirs is a tale of heroic struggle on the part of ever-embattled Believers against the satanic forces of Antivaccationism — who have been trying “since the 18th century” to shake people’s faith in the vaccine gospel.  And nowadays the nasty antivaccinationists are using scarily modern forms of communications, such as TV and the Internet, in order “to sway public opinion and distract attention from scientific evidence.”

Wow:  TV and the web.  Sounds satanic alright.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a couple of crusaders make their own work sound salvationist.  What troubles me is that they make it sound like they’re disinterested do-good-ers.

In fact, Poland and Jacobson are in bed with Big Pharma.  Poland runs the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.  Although as far as I can tell, Poland and Jacobson are not currently in the direct pay of the vaccine manufacturers, they and the VRG have benefited handsomely from vaccine makers’ largesse.

For instance, Poland’s and Jacobson’s work on human papillomavirus vaccine, as they acknowledge in a 2005 Mayo Clinic Proceedings paper, was funded by Merck, and their co-workers were Merck employees.  Later, in conjunction with a continuing medical education module on meningococcal vaccine in 2009, Poland disclosed the following ties:

Sources of Funding for Research: Merck & Co, Inc, Novavax, Inc, Protein Sciences Corp; Consulting Agreements: Avianax, LLC, CSL Biotherapies, CSL Limited, Emergent Biosolutions Inc, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Inc, Novartis Vaccines, Novavax, Inc, PowderMed Ltd

And on his disclosure form for this week’s NEJM article Poland acknowledges funding from Pfizer and Novartis for vaccine studies.

So when Poland and Jacobson write that our society “must continue to fund and publish high-quality studies to investigate concerns about vaccine safety,” they’re really talking about preserving their livelihood.  It’s very much in their interest to ensure a steady flow of such funding.

And when they say that “society must recognize that science is not a democracy in which the side with the most votes or the loudest voices gets to decide what is right,” they’re being completely disingenuous.  Because Poland and Jacobson know quite well why science is not a democracy:  in the type of research they do, it’s the big money that decides what is right.

A High Priest of Vaccine “Science”

Then there’s Paul Offit making the rounds.  Offit has been the subject of lots of attention by Age of Autism, most recently as a “denialist.” Offit probably profited somewhat from the licensing of Rota Teq vaccine, which he helped invent — although AofA’s allegation that he is therefore beholden to Merck seems unsubstantiated.

What’s obvious about Offit is that he is contemptuous of people who don’t agree with his version of truth.

Offit appeared on Lenny Lopate’s radio show in New York yesterday, and presumably will be appearing elsewhere.  His aim is to explain the “grave public health problem of vaccine avoidance.”  The “anti-vaccine movement threatens us all,” he says.  In fact, that’s the subtitle of his new book, Deadly Choices.

Where Poland and Jacobson are militant and sanctimonious, Offit sounds a note at once sentimental and officious.  It’s “tragic” that there have been measles outbreaks because of parents refusing to have their kids vaccinated, he says.  And the problem is that people just don’t understand science.  In fact, Dan Olmsted at AofA gets it quite right when he critique’s Offit’s blinkered version of science:

Anyone concerned about [possible harms of vaccination] fits Offit’s definition of anti-vaccine, because vaccines don’t cause any of them, because Paul Offit says so, a solipsism that is really quite breathtaking: “[B]ecause anti-vaccine activists today define safe as free from side effects such as autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and blood clots — conditions that aren’t caused by vaccines — safer vaccines, using their definition, can never be made.”

I had the same reaction to Offit’s self-important — and, to my mind, unscientific — claims.  Offit shows no interest in the open inquiry that marks science.  People who don’t agree with him are uneducated, poorly informed, maybe just stupid.  And, of course, dangerous.

“Tragic” Consequences of Unbelief

On the Lopate show, Offit resorted to the now-common formula of the “tragic” consequences of parents’ belief in Andrew Wakefield.

What’s the tragedy, exactly?   It’s true that there have been outbreaks of measles in the British Isles that have been traced to parents’ refusal to have their children immunized.  An excellent review in BMJ in 2006 provided some of the data for the U.K. — including that one child died in a 2006 measles outbreak that was related to poor immunization coverage.  A few children died in Ireland in 2000.  A CDC account of a measles outbreak in California in 2008 reports that it hospitalized a few children, although none died.

It would be great if nobody ever died from an infection that could be prevented in any way.  It’s surely tragic to the parents of a child who dies from a preventable infection.   The sympathies of each of us should go out to such parents, as to those whose kids are killed by bad drivers, sports injuries, or infections for which there’s no vaccine.

But in what sense is one child’s death more of a collective “tragedy” for all of us than the other deaths that go unremarked every day?   Why is it tragic when one child dies of a vaccine-preventable infection and not when a lot of them die of poorly regulated handguns or as troops fighting wars that never endanger our leaders, only our young?

The Ramp-up of Aggression by the Vaccine Crusaders

Why are the vaccine warriors rampant now?  Perhaps the vaccine makers are terrified that the low uptake of H1N1 flu vaccine despite all the hype in 2009, along with low MMR compliance in some places (the U.K. especially), means that their profits are going to slide.  Maybe their friends, like Offit and Poland, are worried that reduced uptake of vaccines will translate into diminished research funding or fewer conferences in delicious places.

Or maybe the vaccine industry finds Wakefield so obstreperous that they can’t rest until he is destroyed. Wakefield’s no choir boy, but he might not have realized just how much control the pharmaceutical industry can exert in the U.K.

In a review essay in last week’s New York Review of Books, Simon Head points out that Big Pharma is “the only major segment of the British economy that is both world-class and an intensive user of university research,” and implies that it exerts control over both the substance and volume of U.K. research productivity, especially in medicine.  Head sees reason to believe that Pharma will “tighten its hold over scientific research in the UK” in the future.

It’s Not a War

There need be no either-or about vaccines.  If our society can live with guns and automobiles (together accounting for roughly 50,000 American deaths a year), if we tolerate alcohol, processed foods, acetaminophen, high-rise construction, and all the other things that occasionally cause harm but mostly contribute to the way of life we prefer — then we can stop calling it “tragic” when a few parents don’t have their kids immunized.

Because to call one measles death “tragic” is to further the vaccine warriors’ campaign — the campaign that pretends to be on behalf of science or healthy kids, but is really fought to protect the fortunes of vaccine makers.

The campaign protects the power of shiftless public officials who claim to be protecting the public from harm when they serve up millions of taxpayer dollars to vaccine manufacturers for barely useful vaccines (H1N1 2009), or for vaccines that are undoubtedly helpful but might be harmful in some cases and haven’t been thoroughly examined (HPV vaccine).  And who, to this day, won’t even consider the very good question that Andrew Wakefield posed in the 1990s:  is it a good idea to give kids three immunizations in a single preparation?

I had my child immunized when she was the right age for that.    But I’m not certain that absolutely everyone has to do the same.  Neither are the courts, which is why they allow exemptions from immunization for personal belief.

I don’t think measles is a menace to civilization.  I know that only a very tiny percentage of children who contract measles get dangerously sick from it, that flu vaccine doesn’t work for everyone (and isn’t an effective public health measure to stop flu outbreaks even though it can protect individuals from illness), and that varicella vaccine can make the problem of shingles worse even though it reduces the problem of chicken pox.  And so forth.

I mean that immunization is complex and fraught.  Not everyone can be expected to agree with every vaccine recommendation.   Even while some people are opposed to vaccination and refuse to immunize their kids, life will go on, and society will continue to thrive, and Paul Offit can continue to say arrogant things about “science.”

So, could someone please call off the crusade?