That statement may be true for mice, but the patch vaccine has never even been tested–let alone been proven effective–in humans. The story also cribs some text passages directly from a press release without attribution–a definite no-no for any serious health journalist.
On the upside, at least this story sought out a comment from an independent expert who emphasized the limitations of mouse research–something the AP report didn’t accomplish.
Vaccination against influenza is one of the most cost effective public health measures available. While vaccination rates are improving, less than 50% of adults age 45-65 years receive the vaccine. Despite the attitude of most, influenza is a serious infection that causes about 30,000 deaths a year. Methods that improve vaccination rates in susceptible adults would be welcomed. While fear of the needle may not be the primary cause of people not receiving the injection, improving the accessibility and reducing the pain of injections are likely to improve vaccination rates.
The story relays a researcher’s guess that the patch technology will be no more expensive than the standard flu vaccine once it is mass-produced. That’s enough for a satisfactory given the early stage of development. At least it’s more than the competing AP story did.
It is simply not accurate to state, as this story did in the first sentence, that this patch "vaccinates against the flu" because it hasn’t been tested in humans yet. We also can’t believe the story quoted a researcher saying the patch "appears to vaccinate against influenza at least as well and probably better than a traditional hypodermic needle." Again, these are mice, not people, we’re talking about here, and so these statements go far beyond what the evidence reasonably supports.
Harms were not discussed, but since these are likely to be minimal and we’re at such an early stage in development, we’ll call it not applicable. We think we’re being lenient here (but we were with the AP story as well) because any new drug delivery system runs the risk of causing some harms and side effects – things that can’t be known before human testing – and a point the story could have made.
The story does a better job than the AP competition of explaining what happened in the mouse study and the limitations of rodent research. But this information comes too late and with too little detail to satisfy the criteria. We learn that this was a mouse study only after the story suggests that the new patch works better than traditional hypodermic needles. And we never learn important specifics about the research, such as how many mice were tested and what outcomes were used to establish the superiority of the patch. The story states that the patch-treated mice were "more efficient at clearing the lungs of the flu virus" and that they "did better" than those who received a needle vaccine or a placebo patch. These descriptions are too vague to support the sweeping claims of superiority made about the patch.
The story states that needle-phobia, or trypanophobia, affects about 10% of the public. While we don’t know how this figure was calculated, it is consistent with the estimate provided in at least one literature review we found. If anything, the story could have gone into more detail regarding the suffering that this condition causes due to avoidance of medical and dental care.
Two independent sources are interviewed, one of whom provides valuable context regarding the difficulty of replicating mouse studies in humans.
Like the AP competition, the story fails to mention the availability of options to reduce vaccine pain. These include the Flumist nasal spray and topical creams that can be used to anesthetize the site of the needle stick.
The story makes it clear that this technology is not yet available. But why waste the introduction predicting that the patch "could be available in 5 years"? That space would have been better used to provide an important detail about the research: This was a mouse study! Instead, readers have to wait 5 paragraphs to learn this. And what is that five-year prediction based on besides the hopes and prayers of a researcher and whatever company will market it?
There are a variety of methods under development for delivering painless injections, including a similar patch technology being investigated by Japanese researchers. A nasal spray vaccine also is available. The story did not mention these.
Although several experts are interviewed, passages from this Georgia Tech press release are reprinted nearly verbatim. Example:
Press release: "When infected with influenza virus 30 days later, both groups that had received the vaccine remained healthy while mice in the control group contracted the disease and died."
Chronicle: "Infected with the influenza virus 30 days later, both groups that received the vaccine remained healthy while mice in the control group contracted the flu and died."
If an editor doesn’t catch this and judge it to be unsatisfactory, we will.