Friday night a week ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill made some strong assertions about the H1N1 vaccine without any evidence to back up his opinions. He was wrong then and he was wrong again Friday night. He reiterated his unsupported opinions on the last episode of his show for this season. Clearly, Maher is defensive on this issue. He claims he is only asking people to think about it, but that is not what he has advocated. It's quite legitimate to ask about the evidence for the importance of vaccinations. It is not as legitimate to use your "star" status to influence others, when you have no facts to share. Getting vaccinated or not is not just a personal decision, like whether or not to take vitamins or eat organic food. Flu affects your family and everyone you associate with.
So let me repeat what I wrote last weekend -- what is the evidence about the H1N1 vaccine? Here is a VERY good source about the flu. Check it out. Public health officials state that the vaccine was developed the same way flu vaccines have been developed for decades, with very few adverse effects. And, this particular flu really can be dangerous. H1N1 (which I will refer to as "swine flu", although it is different from the swine flu of the 1970s) can potentially kill many more people than other pandemic flus we have experienced.
First, let's try to separate fact from fiction.
1. Swine flu or H1N1 is a real strain of influenza, and it has killed and sickened many people around the world.
2. Ordinary flu kills thousands of people every year. One of the differences between ordinary flu and H1N1 is that the latter strain seems to affect younger people more severely.
3. The cases of H1N1 (swine flu) in the U.S. are on the rise and certain parts of the population are at more risk than others.
4. The Centers for Disease Control have recommended vaccination for certain parts of this population -- younger people, people with immune deficiency, children, and pregnant women.
Pregnant women are significantly more likely to have complications or death from swine flu, for a variety of reasons.
5. Many people question the effectiveness of vaccines in general, and there are legitimate questions that can be raised. How effective was the regular flu vaccine during the 2007-08 season? Below is some factual information about the effectiveness of vaccines.
The effectiveness of the vaccine depends in part on the match between the viruses in the vaccine and influenza viruses that are circulating in the community. If these are closely matched, vaccine effectiveness (VE) is higher. If they are not closely matched, vaccine effectiveness can be reduced. During well-matched years, clinical trials have shown VE between 70% and 90% for inactivated influenza vaccines in the prevention of serologically confirmed influenza infection among healthy adults.
6. There is a lot of fear-mongering about the dangers or effectiveness of vaccines, particularly swine flu vaccine. But if you look at the sources of this information, they come from less than credible sources. People who warn against vaccinations do so most often with very little evidence that can be corroborated. News articles and individual physician opinions are not always accurate or based on more rigorous scientific evidence.
This is where Bill Maher is absolutely wrong and actually dangerous. He is suggesting that pregnant women should not be concerned, but he has given no evidence to support his assertions other than his assertion. We are supposed to believe him because he has a show on HBO?
This flu season there will be illness and death. There always is. But if you are in a high risk group, not to be vaccinated seems like a big risk to take. However, whatever you decide, don't base it on Bill Maher. Base it on whatever good information you can get from sources you can trust. Hopefully those sources will be from physicians, clinicians and people who understand data and evidence. Not entertainers.
UPDATE: Apparently both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh agree with Bill Maher about the dangers of swine flu vaccine. Strange bedfellows indeed.
NEW UPDATE: There is an excellent description of the whole H1N1 vaccine issue on today's Daily Kos website. If you are serious about thinking your options through, and not just someone whose mind has been made up, please read this. It is filled with thoughtful comments and facts and helps explain what the real risk are to the vaccine as well as to the flu itself. http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/10/16/794202/-Flu-Data-Shows-Concerned-Health-Officials,-Skeptical-Public