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Why I have been vaccinated against pandemic influenza: an expert’s account

As previously reported at Croakey, the World Health Organisation is facing some awkward questions in Europe regarding the pharmaceutical industry’s role in the pandemic influenza response, and here is the latest snippet in an issue which is likely to continue to hit the headlines.

Professor Robert Booy, a paediatrician and infectious diseases expert from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, argues below that focusing on such concerns risks obscuring the bigger picture, including the potential public health benefits of vaccination. He writes:

“As the public clamour has risen for recouping funds spent on treating or preventing the new pandemic swine flu and interested parties have said “I told you so” in relation to the relative mildness of disease, I have become more and more concerned that the imperative of public health is being overshadowed.

The questioning of the value of H1N1 2009 vaccines by experts from different fields has undoubtedly been done in good faith but may well also have sounded the death-knell for what would otherwise have been, for the first time in history, the eminently achievable control of a pandemic virus with attendant dramatic reductions in transmission, disease and deaths.

Many people returned from trips to the northern hemisphere during January, some bringing the swine flu virus with them and now that children are returning to school the risk of transmission rises greatly. Europe USA and Asia have already had a second wave and ours is coming, perhaps as soon as February.

The double truth that the pandemic H1N1 2009 virus was by and large innocuous in the great majority of those infected but could, in a small percentage, be severe remains the case and was predicted to be so from the outset in April 2009.

A small percentage of a very large number of infected people can still lead to a sizeable and important number of seriously infected people as demonstrated by intensive care units full to capacity across developed countries beginning for example in Australia from June 2009. These admissions to intensive care have been almost entirely in people aged below 60 years of age, a large proportion of whom, perhaps a third, had no underlying medical risk factor.

Herein lies another duality that is surprising to many. The main reason a new pandemic is predicted to cause large numbers of deaths is because all in the population are naive and the elderly, being particularly vulnerable, constitute by far the greatest proportion of fatalities.

With the current virus, there is evidence from Australia, North America, Asia and Europe for cross protective immunity in the elderly which is especially strong in those aged in their 80s and 90s and likely to have been exposed for the first time in early childhood to an influenza virus similar to the 1918 (or the same) pandemic virus.

The WHO continues to assess the impact of this pandemic as moderate and emphasize that it will not be possible to have an accurate understanding of casualty rates until at least a year after it has peaked, although we know already that influenza deaths in children and young adults have been higher than in recent memory.

Mathematical modelling had been usefully applied to this and other infectious disease problems. If a virus on average affects 2 people for every individual infected, its effective reproduction number  (R)  is 2 and it can be logically derived that at least 50% of the population must be immune to control an outbreak and lead to its extinction. The formula for the proportion needed to be immune is 1 minus (1 divided by R).

The H1N1 2009 virus has an effective R closer to 1.5, so as an approximation we need at least one third of people to be immune for control. The proportion is however higher in certain crowded situations such as children in day care or schools as transmissibility is also higher in those situations.

There are reports from countries suggesting that uptake of the new vaccine for H1N1 2009 may be somewhere between 10 – 20% of the population. Almost all are likely to be immune as a consequence. If about 20% are also immune due to infection, then we may well not have enough population-wide protection to prevent the next wave, particularly in high risk settings like schools and kindergartens.

The more I learn, the more I understand how much I don’t know. What is more, as an epidemiologist, the biggest lesson I have learnt is not to jump to conclusions but to search for those alternate explanations, those confounders which deepen understanding and should inform public health policy and practice.

My perspective lies in the clinical and public health realms. My concern about well intentioned skeptics is that what seems a compelling argument to them (and some other people) may be confounded.

If I had an injury involving a severe laceration/amputation of a finger, I would much prefer a hand surgeon to neurosurgeon; both are highly trained and very much of it is overlapping, but at the end of the day I want the expert who does hand surgeries every day to look after me – he or she knows more about the topic and has the practical expertise.

I, as a doctor, am vaccinated against H1N1 2009 so that I am protected and do not pass on the infection to vulnerable patients. The vaccine is safe and effective. My nearest and dearest have been vaccinated too. Why not you?”

• Declaration: Prof Robert Booy does not hold shares in vaccine companies and does not accept payment from them for consultation. For some years he has produced educational material for the public and health professionals on a pro bono basis. He does vaccine research trials with government and industry. He has been a vaccine researcher for over 20 years, the last 10 focussing on influenza. He is the author of over 25 scientific publications on influenza and a member of national committees devoted to influenza pandemic planning and response. He has been an unpaid advocate for vaccines in general, including participating in a CSL information campaign that included  a CSL organised press briefing.

Comments 8

  1. Jon Hunt says:

    Well, yes. Why not?

  2. Trevor Kerr says:

    Would the declaration “does not hold shares in vaccine companies and does not accept payment from them for consultation” be enough to satisfy the standard for publication in the BMJ, Lancet or NEJM?

  3. presactly says:

    I got my jab a few months ago. I was inclined to anyway, as I understood the argument from the 1918 pandemic that it’s the second go-round that’s the killer (pardon the pun).

    This was reinforced by talking to an ambo friend who’d taken young, fit (no underlying conditions) people to hospital who later died. Concentrates the mind wonderfully!

  4. Richard Wilson says:

    In my view the vaccination appears to have already clouded this doctor’s thinking.
    Vaccination for certain situations may have benefits but according to many experts H1N1 has a decidedly suspect history. It predecessor H1N1 virus marketed in the US back in the 1976, according to US 60 Minutes in a 1978 story (still relatively reliable back in those days), was far less dangerous than the vaccine which killed 25 times more people than the virus; plus the admitted 10,000-20,000 patients who experienced serious side effects. The real number may have been many times that. The result was that after 40 million doses had been administered the campaign was promptly withdrawn.

    According to US patent reports, the new H1N1 virus was patented by a US corporation six to nine months before the first Mexican outbreak and many experts including several Australian researchers are casting serious doubts on the whole deal. Virologist Dr. Adrian Gibbs and his co-researchers have suggested it may have been a “lab error” resulting in this recombination. However, professional journalists like Austrian Jane Burgermeister having reported that a vigilant Czech lab discovered live virus present in the vaccine shipped unsecured to Czech Republic. She is crying “foul play” and has laid criminal charges against the labs involved along with the WHO.

    The parents of the genes that comprise the virus come from man, bird and pig and the probability of this being a natural combination is slim without innocent or not so innocent intervention.

    But not to worry Dr. Suss, the South Australian Public Health Bill 2009 introduced into that state’s parliament late in 2009 “provides for a compulsory scheme of clinical examination, counseling, treatment orders and detention or isolation orders if you are suspected of having a disease (like swine flu). So, if you want to experience Nazi Germany 21st Century style, I guess you need go no farther than South Australia. I wonder whether the writer practices in SA? Incidentally, in the totalitarian USA, many workers are forced into mandatory vaccinations against their will – it’s either take the shot or pack your bags! Proposed S.A. legislation proves it can also happen here.

    And when you hear agents promulgating vaccination for all, try to ignore the brave and powerful work presented by Robert F Kennedy Jr. on the government cover up of the effects of mercury (thimerosol), a major component of most vaccines, on levels of autism in the population. Its rise to 1 in around 100 in the US with one in five children in that sad nation now being classified as having “special needs” happens to coincide with the introduction and subsequent ramping up of vaccinations especially among new born infants. So before you listen to any professional about what is good for you and your family, read Robert Kennedy’s article in Rolling Stone in 2005 called “Vaccinations: Deadly Immunity”

    All these campaigns have involved a high level of fear mongering and if not for Australian’s healthy distrust for authority, we may have gotten into more trouble than we have to date. Be on the lookout for the next beat-up – it will be worth a packet to the local vaccine industry but in my opinion, you and your family may not be so fortunate.

  5. SBH says:

    Too right Richard, I’ll use Rolling Stone for all future medical advice and ignore trained health professionals who no doubt can be relied upon to provide cutting edge entertainment news instead.

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Primary Health Networks
private health insurance
quality and safety of health care
rural and remote health
screening
sexual health
social media and healthcare
suicide
surgery
swine flu
telehealth
tests
TGA
trauma
women's health
youth health
Indigenous health
#CTG10
#NTRC
Acknowledgement
cultural safety
Indigenous education
Lowitja Institute
NT Intervention
social and emotional wellbeing
Uluru Statement
WA community closures
News about Croakey
PIJ Commissions 2021
Public health and population health
#PreventiveHealthStrategy
#UnmetNeedsinPublicHealth
air pollution
alcohol
consumer health matters
COVIDwrap
environmental health
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)
food and nutrition
gambling
Government 2.0
gun control
health communications
health impact assessment
Health in All Policies
health inequalities
health literacy
human rights
illicit drugs
injuries
legal issues
marriage equality
Media Doctor Australia
media-related issues
nanny state
National Preventive Health Agency
obesity
occupational health
physical activity
plain packaging
prevention
public health
public interest journalism
road safety
sport
sugar tax
tobacco control
transport
vaccination
violence
Web 2.0
weight loss products
Royal Commission
Social determinants of health
discrimination
education
justice
Justice Reinvestment
NBN
Newstart
poverty
racism
social policy
Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16
#TowardsRecovery
#VMIAC16
#WearablesCEH
#WICC2016
2017 conferences
#17APCC
#ACEM17
#AIDAconf2017
#BTH20
#CATSINaM17
#ClimateHealthStrategy
#IAHAConf17
#IDS17
#LBQWHC17
#LivingOurWay
#OKtoAskAu
#OTCC2017
#ResearchTranslation17
#TheMHS2017
#VMIACConf17
#WCPH2017
Australian Palliative Care Conference
2018 conferences
#6rrhss
#ACEM18
#AHPA2018
#ATSISPC18
#CPHCE
#MHED18
#NDISMentalHealth
#Nurseforce
#OKToAsk2018
#RANZCOG18
#ResearchIntoPolicy
#VHAawards
#VMIACAwards18
#WISPC18