The flu season is back along with annual vaccination campaigns.  But controversy builds
as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) questions if flu vaccines are effective and whether patients are given enough information to make an informed choice. In the light of past history Susan McFie asks who can we trust?

It’s that time of year. Waiting at the doctor’s surgery you will doubtless be bombarded with cautionary tales of failing to get an annual flu jab. There’s no escaping the message: local pharmacies, primary schools and supermarkets are in on the act. You may even be offered a complimentary balloon. People are falling over themselves to inject us, squirt us with nasal vaccines or prescribe anti-viral drugs. Is this necessary? Is it effective? Is it safe?

You might assume that medical professionals would be first to get the shots; not so.  45% of NHS staff in England and 60% in Scotland remain unvaccinated. Yet GP practices receive payments of around £10.00 per shot administered.  Could the push to vaccinate be associated with these target payments? A BMJ report last October revealed that some GPs were effectively threatening patients! One surgery even withheld repeat prescriptions from people declining vaccines. But in some cases payments are vital, compensating for lacking funds.

If doctors had fewer financial concerns and more time to research, what might they discover? In last month’s BMJ, editor Peter Doshi described how governments internationally have taken unsafe shortcuts getting flu vaccines marketed. He details how in Europe licenses were granted for products based on studies of entirely different vaccines containing different viruses. Other countries including the UK and the USA gave manufacturers indemnity from liability for vaccine injuries.

Doshi says the 2009 swine flu vaccines were ‘even more controversial than normal’. Senior German physicians expressed concern over GlaxoSmithKline’s Pandemrix vaccine, which contained a controversial ‘adjuvant’, a substance added in order to ‘turbo-charge’ immune response. Then it was discovered that top politicians and government employees were to receive a different vaccine, one without the suspect adjuvant! The European Medicines Agency stressed the ‘Unpredictability of adjuvant effects in humans’.

Doctors’ fears appeared justified as health authorities from China, Sweden, France and Japan reported serious injury and death following the experimental Pandemrix vaccine. The most serious adverse effects were narcolepsy and cataplexy following injection. In narcolepsy the brain switches off, often without warning, while in cataplexy there is sudden loss of muscle function. Many also developed sleep apnea, paralysis, night terrors and hallucinations. By 2010 new cases were being diagnosed daily across Europe. Some doctors spoke of an epidemic. As a result the vaccine was withdrawn.

History reveals the swine flu vaccination campaign of 1976 was cut short when hundreds of people developed paralysing Guillain-Barré syndrome. Then in 2005 the UN and the World Health Organization warned that bird flu was imminent and would kill up to 150 million people. Images of the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic were used to reinforce the message. This resulted in global stockpiling of a new anti-viral drug called Tamiflu. The UK spent £473m on it; the US purchased 20 million doses at $100 dollars each.

The panic diminished, the world breathed a collective sigh. Tamiflu began to slip from blockbuster status. But in 2009, just when we thought it was safe to visit the farmyard, the World Health Organisation warned that the world was once more in the midst of a swine flu pandemic. Just four months later the vaccines appeared. The US National Institutes of Health advised that the shots were safe. In the UK a joint statement from the Department of Health, British Medical Association, and Royal Colleges of General Practitioners announced full support for the vaccine program saying it had been ‘thoroughly tested.’ The problem was that it hadn’t, and many people now live with the results.

From a public health perspective vaccination is about risk versus benefit – the risk of catching a disease versus the risk of adverse events from the vaccine. Against this we need to know if the drug actually works. Pandemrix was given to 6 million people in the UK and 30 million people across Europe. Numbers of serious side-effects are difficult to ascertain: the Irish Times had to resort to the Freedom of Information Act to discover that swine flu vaccines in Ireland had resulted in almost 1,000 injury reports in 2009 alone, more than any other drug or vaccine over the previous five years.

Over 1,300 cases of narcolepsy were reported in UK and Europe following Pandemrix. Researchers in Finland found a 12 fold increase in narcolepsy in adults and British research identified ‘at least’ 14-fold increase in the condition in UK children given the vaccine. EU regulators were already investigating 12 conditions ‘of special interest’ associated with flu vaccines including anaphylaxis, Bell’s palsy, auto-immune hepatitis, convulsions, Gullain-Barré Syndrome and sudden death.

But do the drugs even work? In 2012 Labour MP Paul Flynn described the 2009 flu vaccine campaign as ‘one of the most expensive confidence tricks in history’. The campaign, he said, ‘made billions for Big Pharma, frightened the world witless and wrecked the priorities of health services worldwide. All for a mild illness that was less dangerous than seasonal flu.’

Flynn detailed how when 60% of Sweden’s population was vaccinated (that’s 5.4 million shots) just 6 lives were saved, and the flu death rate sat at 0.31 per 100,000. Poland, which hardly vaccinated anyone, had a flu death rate only marginally higher at 0.47 per 100,000. In the same period the UK had double Poland’s rate of flu fatalities despite mass vaccination costing £1.2 billion.

Flu treatments also have major problems. In 2014 the global Cochrane Collaboration concluded that the anti-viral drug Tamiflu was no better than paracetamol and didn’t stop the disease spreading or prevent dangerous complications, concluding  ‘there is no credible way these drugs could prevent a pandemic.’And Tamiflu has side effects. Oxford Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine Carl Heneghan, speaking to the BBC, said for every 10 million doses of Tamiflu, about 10,000 people report serious psychiatric events. Suicidal behaviour, hallucinations, seizures and delirium have been reported in young people in the UK and USA.

Hastings Independent Press spoke to Dr C. Benton, a US physician and formerly keen proponent of vaccination. In a meeting with a medical director at the Centre for Disease Control, Benton was told that there would never be a good flu vaccine because there are over 200 viruses causing flu and flu-like symptoms. Manufacturers have to guess a year ahead which ones might be circulating.

Only around half of all NHS staff take flu vaccines. Two NHS Trusts reported a take-up of only around one fifth of staff.  In Yorkshire just 18.4% of frontline ambulance crew chose to be vaccinated last year.

Flu vaccines were not recommended for healthy children until 2000 but Flu Mist,  a nasal spray, is now being administered in UK schools.
The US Centre for Disease Control stopped recommending Flu Mist following a reported 97% failure rate in 2015/16.

43% of people studied by the journal Vaccine believed the flu shot could give you the flu. Manufacturers say it’s a ‘killed virus’ and cannot cause flu. However many people develop so called flu-like symptoms.

Flu Mist spray is live containing 4 genetically modified flu viruses including Swine flu. Experts say it causes a mild flu infection and may infect others for up to 3 weeks.

The projected Bird flu and Swine flu pandemics never arrived. Neither virus passes easily to humans. But thousands experienced serious effects from vaccines and anti-viral drugs. Fortune magazine described Avian flu as ‘very good news’ for investors. 

Research suggests that vitamin D is more effective at preventing flu than vaccines, particularly in cases of deficiency.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.