What’s in your H1N1 flu vaccine?
Chris Shaw wasn’t always skeptical about vaccines. The neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia had his teenage son vaccinated with most of the recommended shots. But then he started studying some of the ingredients commonly found in vaccines.
What he discovered caused him to go cold turkey on all shots for his six-year-old daughter. And that includes the vaccine for the H1N1 flu.
“I am not convinced H1N1 is sufficiently hazardous to most people to risk the potential downside of the vaccine,” Shaw said over the phone from his office in the research pavilion at the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
Shaw isn’t an easily dismissed vaccine conspiracy theorist. He is a leading expert on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Parkinson’s disease. While investigating unusually high rates of ALS and other neurological disorders among veterans who have Gulf War syndrome, he found evidence that the cause may have been aluminum salt, an ingredient in the cocktail of vaccines given to soldiers before deployment.
Although aluminum salt isn’t present in the H1N1 vaccine, Shaw’s discovery made him concerned about other vaccines, including the swine-flu shot. He isn’t alone in his thoughts.
Despite a full frontal assault of news about the dangers of the flu and the importance of vaccination, a survey in late October revealed that only 36 percent of Canadians said they would get the shot. Lack of trust in the vaccine was cited as the main reason for vaccine opposition. Another poll in November found that 65 percent of Canadians believe the media has overreacted to the threat of swine flu.
Even many health workers aren’t convinced. In two separate surveys, in the U.K. (Pulse) and Hong Kong (British Medical Journal), published in August, half of health-care professionals said they didn’t intend to get the vaccine.
Canadian health officials and some newspaper columnists have reacted by accusing vaccine opponents of being conspiracy mongers or just plain irresponsible.
Who is right? Is the cure really worse than the disease? Let’s look at some numbers.
First, the disease. Swine flu had killed 161 Canadians as of November 12. That works out to one death per 200,000 Canadians in the past six-and-a-half months. Over the same period of time, major cardiovascular diseases typically claim 240 times more Canadian lives (about 39,000), cancer claims 230 times more (37,000 deaths), pneumonia kills 18 times more (2,800), and accidental falls claim eight times more (1,260), according to calculations based on 2005 Statistics Canada figures.
H1N1 has about the same death rate as hernias. But we don’t see scary front-page headlines for months on end about hernias, pneumonia, or falling down.
“It’s really not causing—and is not going to cause and nowhere has caused—significant levels of illness or death,” Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health, told the CBC on November 12.
Schabas said H1N1 “has ultimately turned out to be, from a pandemic perspective, a dud”.
What about the vaccine? Is it safe? Despite the onslaught of confident pronouncements from health officials and doctors, Shaw says he hasn’t seen enough information on the safety of the vaccine. “If the science were there, we could make a rational decision. But it’s a coin toss.”
Looking for answers, Shaw turned to the 24-page product-information leaflet on the vaccine released by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline. Health Canada used this document in approving the shot.
The leaflet leaves Shaw cold. “You couldn’t turn this in as a master’s thesis anywhere I know of and get a passing grade,” he said, calling the leaflet a “shocking document”.
Shaw said the material lacks basic information. For example, there is no safety data at all for several groups of people—pregnant women, people aged over 60, kids aged 10 to 17, and children under three. For kids three to nine years old, there is only “very limited” data.