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Swine flu vaccination and one unimpressed media customer

With today’s launch of what may prove to be the biggest vaccination program in Australia’s history, debate about the merits of swine flu vaccination continues.

In Crikey today, a leading US consumer advocate as well as an international expert on influenza vaccines from the Cochrane Collaboration raise several questions for Australian health authorities, while former Federal Health Minister Dr Michael Wooldridge argues strongly in support of the vaccination program.

Meanwhile, a regular Croakey contributor, Dr Trevor Kerr, has been watching the media coverage of the campaign, and believes it’s been too uncritical.

He writes:

“Geoffrey Barker’s essay for the latest Griffith REVIEW on the death of Australian journalism (‘The crumbling estate’) concludes:

Free, independent, muck-raking journalism is more important than ever in a world dominated by political, bureaucratic and corporate authoritarians supported by armies of flim-flam communications advisers whose mission is to conceal and mislead, and who are delighted to see readers distracted with a fast-food diet of sex, sport and celebrity scandal.

On page three, Barker reflected on an episode of intensive marketing for a pharmaceutical product. “Recent disclosures about the intrusive role of PR flacks in a court case over the withdrawn anti-arthritis drug Vioxx offers alarming evidence of how far they are prepared to go to intimidate reporters. It is hardly surprising that young journalists are tempted to get among the big bucks rather than to struggle thanklessly to develop independent reportage, for it is easier and more congenial to be a massager of messages than a raker of muck.”

We could see reasons for Barker’s denunciations in the item for last night’s (Sept 29th) 7.30 Report on the H1N1 influenza vaccine. The academy (University of Melbourne’s Terry Nolan), government (Health Minister Nicola Roxon) and commerce (CSL’s Rachel David) were lined up to refute rational objections to the vaccination policy (Canberra Hospital’s Peter Collignon). Nolan even trotted out the coup de grace “We could wait and we could allow people to die”.

It would be helpful in this debate if interviewers asked medical experts and researchers to declare their conflicts of interests and associations with pharmaceutical companies. That tactic, however, despite seeming to be in the wider public interest, does not always meet with approval.

Peter Sandman, risk analyst, in his latest update on H1N1 vaccination, comments “Worst case: The seasonal vaccine turns out not only unnecessary this year, or not only ineffective against the most virulent seasonal flu strain – but actually dangerous, by increasing vaccinees’ susceptibility to pandemic H1N1. This could cause a fiasco (like the 1976 swine flu vaccination campaign) that shadows all influenza vaccination for a generation or more. And, most important, it could kill people.”

Well, at least the New York Times is willing to publish divergent views. In the context of Nicola Roxon urging pregnant women to be among the first to be vaccinated against H1N1, NYT ran ‘Don’t Blame Flu Shots for All Ills, Officials Say’ and ‘Pregnancy Is No Time to Refuse a Flu Shot’ in the last few days. There’s more to be said about this unseemly rush to expose the unborn to the unproven.

There are reports today (eg, NPR) that CDC will be reporting in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that significant numbers of people dying after H1N1 infection had pneumococcal pneumonia.

Will this provide fuel for another roll-out campaign to be spearheaded by Nicola, Terry and Rachel? If so, CSL shareholders will be most pleased.

Finally, the proponents for universal vaccination could help themselves by watching the file shots used in last night’s 7.30 Report. For about the fourth occasion on the H1N1 vaccine, the ABC has used video of that vaccinator with appalling long, false fingernails.

That is clearly not world’s best practice and at a time when prudent and careful context ought to be tempering the haste.”

Trevor Kerr is a retired medical microbiologist, now working part-time for a community health service

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