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Swine flu vaccine risk?


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Swine flu vaccine risk?

Our Review Summary

This broadcast segment was intended to inform viewers about a potential risk of immunization against H1N1 infuenza.  While the goal was laudable, the story failed to do so.  The information provided in the broadcast was said to be from a "new report out of London."  The source of the information was not provided but appears to be a Sunday Times article reporting that the Health Protection Agency sent letters to neurologists asking them to look for cases of Guillain Barre Syndrome associated with the upcoming immunization program.  The story contains several statistics that appear questionable especially since no source was provided.  For example, the risk of death in people who are infected with the H1N1 flu virus is said to be 1 in 1000.  According to the CDC (see: ), there were 302 deaths in 43,771 confirmed and suspected cases of H1N1 influenza through July 2009.   That’s about 0.7% or 7 per 1000 not 1 per 1000.  It should be noted that there are about 36,000 deaths every year from the regular flu. The risks of developing GBS was said to be 1 in a million. But that is the risk associated with influenza vaccine in 1992-3 and 1993-4.    We don’t know what the risk is with the vaccine under production against H1N1 influenza.  And that is exactly why the Health Protection Agency, the world Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control will conduct increased surveillance, not just for GBS but for any other side effects that may appear.  The story was correct in noting that people should make decisions about vaccination with good information.  Unfortunately there wasn’t much good about the information provided by the story. It was a confusing jumble of facts, numbers, and history – lacking appropriate context.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

There was no discussion of costs but the cost of treatment of Guillain Barre Syndrome or of the vaccine itself are less important in this story line.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

While it seemed that an implicit assumption was that flu vaccine provided some benefit, the story did not actually quantify the benefit from flu vaccine. In fact, there was a suggestion that the vaccine would only benefit those in high risk categories. And two thirds of the airtime was gone before they even mentioned any possible benefit of the vaccine.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story is one that highlights GBS and its relationship to flu vaccine.  The risks of developing GBS are highlighted throughout the story.  While several attempts were made to put the risks into perspective, overall the reader is likely to walk away with an exaggerated assessment of risks associated with H1N1 vaccine. 

While presenting a number for the number of cases of GBS to be expected when people are vaccinated against H1N1, the segment failed to distinguish between the swine flu vaccine of 1976 and the current vaccine under development.  Therefore the number of expected cases mentioned  should not have been repeated as though it were scientific data rather than merely an estimate.

The story seeks to link the swine flu vaccine of 1976 to the current H1N1 vaccine, clearly links the swine flu vaccine as the cause of GBS and by implication links the H1N1 vaccine to it as well.  The issuing of a request for increased surveillance is just that and it is not evidence of linkage. 

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

Although the segment detailed the experience of the 1976 swine flu vaccine, it did not clearly distinguish between that experience and the current vaccine being developed for the current H1N1 pandemic flu strain.  Further, it failed to explain the nature of the research piece reported on from London.  No report was identified, no independent sources were provided.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

Because there was no balance with benefit of treatment, by default, this story ends up being a disease mongering piece about Guillain Barre Syndrome.  It wasn’t until two minutes deep in a three minute piece that any possible benefit of the vaccine was even mentioned. 

The story was based on what was only termed "a new report out of London."  What they didn’t say was that this came from an alleged British health agency memo leaded to a UK newspaper.  But there is ALWAYS a risk of Guillain Barre Syndrome with any vaccine, and the whole reason for doing this story now was never explained.  

It just raised fear.  

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

There were no independent sources quotes as part of this broadcast.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story attempts to provide some information about options to the readers.  The options related to immunization are to accept or not accept the vaccine.  The story attemtps to provide a way of thinking about the options for people who may have preexisting conditions that place them at high risk for complications of the flu.  However, in context, the information is not balanced and will likely lead many to a choice that is based on a misconception.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

This segment reported that vaccine against the H1N1 flu might be expected to begin in October.  That said, the segment was less about the vaccine than it was about the potential for Guillain Barre Syndrome.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

This segment did not do an adequate job detailing that the vaccination against H1N1 was separate from the routine flu vaccine that is developed yearly.  It also did not provide sufficient information for viewers to grasp that the vaccine from 1976 is not the same as the current vaccine under development.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

Does not appear to rely on a press release though it likely derives from the report in the Sunday Times about a request that went out for increased surveillance. 

Total Score: 0 of 7 Satisfactory


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