"Immunisation Week" – Day 4

immunisation-researchIt’s day four of Immunisation Week, and so far the news has still been – thankfully – fairly quiet, with little new appearing in the media. The key story seems to be one from Reuters talking about the new deadly ‘flu strain in China sending shivers up WHO’s back, with headlines declaring there’s a chance it may come to New Zealand. Call me cynical, but isn’t that stating the obvious a little? Viruses spread, we know this – so why the massive headlines designed to keep everybody on their toes and living in fear? I’m guessing there’s going to be another few weeks of similar headlines peppered through the papers, before we either see this year’s ‘normal’ ‘flu create havoc here (in the media anyway) and the continued pushing of the vaccination onto everybody, or this Chinese strain will escalate, spread, and we’ll have a wonder-drug of some description come to light to save us all, a la Tamiflu and the bird and swine flus of recent years. Fingers crossed we don’t see a truly serious pandemic from this one.

Anyway, that aside, today’s focus is going to be on a story in the Marlborough Times encouraging pregnant women to get themselves vaccinated. This one is a fairly standard piece, yet again, however there are a few issues raised that I think deserve to be examined in a little more detail.

This is the story here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/marlborough-express/news/8590103/Expectant-mum-takes-advice-on-jabs

Firstly, the headline: ‘Expectant Mum takes advice on jabs’. Can anybody spell ‘patriarchal nonsense’? The implication here, of course, is that people – particularly ones in vulnerable situations, such as pregnancy – should take the ‘advice’ of the ‘experts’ and listen like good little boys and girls, doing as they say without asking too many questions. The content of the piece itself unfortunately doesn’t get an awful lot better.

We start off with a comment that this mother in particular had some reservations about having a vaccine during pregnancy, fearing it may harm her unborn child. The midwife and nurse reassured her it was perfectly safe and so she apparently smiled, nodded, and rolled up her sleeve, trusting their advice and allowing herself to be vaccinated against the ‘flu and pertussis (and diptheria, and tetanus). Now, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with trusting a health professional – after all, we rely on them to give the best advice possible – but it does pay to remember they are only human, and to think about things critically yourself.

Like, for example, reading the datasheet, just as a start.

For reference, here are the ones for Fluarix and Fluvax (the ‘flu jab’) and Boostrix (the Diptheria/Pertussis/Tetanus one – no, it isn’t just a whooping cough vaccine!).

I quote from the Fluarix sheet:

Pregnancy and lactation

Adequate human data on use during pregnancy are not available. Animal studies do not indicate direct or indirect harmful effects with respect to reproductive and developmental toxicity. However, as with all inactivated viral vaccines, the risks to the fetus are considered to be negligible. FLUARIX should be used during pregnancy only when clearly needed, and the possible advantages outweigh the potential risks for the foetus.

Adequate human data on use during lactation and adequate animal reproduction studies are not available. There is no known contraindication in the use of FLUARIX during lactation.

Great. So there’s not adequate safety data, but we ASSUME it’s safe. Well, that’s comforting. Remember the wonder-drug thalidomide that was also assumed safe during pregnancy? Look how well that one turned out. Sometimes the precautionary principle is the best to follow.

The Fluvax sheet says pregnant women should be offered the vaccine in the third trimester, and an animal study didn’t show any negative effects. Wonderful. A study funded by the company whose previous ‘flu vaccine left so many Australian children seriously ill and suffering convulsions that it had to be recalled for under-5s after wreaking so much havoc just a couple of years ago, is assuring us that this one is safe in pregnancy because they did an animal study and it didn’t show anything? Excuse me if I don’t entirely trust their word. And what exactly was the study? How can you be sure that the results in these animals will be the same as in humans? How long did the study go for, how long did they watch for reactions, and what reactions were they looking for? What were the criteria for accepting that a reaction was a result of the vaccination? Questions, questions.

Then there’s the datasheet for Boostrix:

Use In Pregnancy (Category B2)
Adequate human data on use during pregnancy and adequate animal reproduction studies are not available. Therefore, BOOSTRIX® should be used during pregnancy only when clearly needed, and the possible advantages outweigh the possible risks for the foetus. When protection against tetanus is sought, consideration should be given to tetanus or combined diphtheria-tetanus vaccines. As with all inactivated vaccines, one does not expect harm to the foetus.

Use In Lactation

The safety of BOOSTRIX® when administered to breast-feeding women has not been evaluated.

It is unknown whether BOOSTRIX® is excreted in human breast milk.

BOOSTRIX® should only be used during breast-feeding when the possible advantages outweigh the potential risks.

Again, that’s highly reassuring – lots of expectations again but little concrete data, and no adequate human trials. But give it to pregnant women anyway, right? We ‘assume’ it’ll be fine. This is without even mentioning what’s actually in the vaccines besides the viral strains.

Moving back to the story, we see a quote from one of the doctors involved, stating that the only side-effects from the vaccines were bruising around the injection site. Uhh, excuse me? How about the myriad adjuvants people react to negatively? How about the risk of viral contamination? How about the many, many side-effects listed in the datasheets (see above)? How about the reports lodged with CARM and other overseas databases from doctors and patients alike?! This comment – designed, of course, to lull us into a false sense of security and to once again drum into our subconscious the mantra that ‘vaccines are safe’, ‘vaccines are effective’, ‘vaccines save lives’, ‘vaccines do no harm’, ‘anybody who doubts this is crazy’ – is an outright lie, and beyond offensive to the newspapers’ readership and to the doctors’ clientele. How stupid do they think we are?

Yes, the patriachy is strong in this one…

In short, if you feel the need to have a vaccine in pregnancy, then that’s your decision. But please, please – at the very least read the datasheets first, so you have more of an idea of what it is you’re injecting yourself with and exposing your developing baby to. Think critically on the subject, on the risks and benefits. Research what other means you have at your disposal to protect yourself and your child, and how to avoid getting sick in the first place. Don’t just take the word of somebody else as gospel and leave your own ability to think critically and make sound judgements at the door. And always follow your instinct as a parent – it’s what’s helped our species survive over the millennia and grow to the point we’re at now.