Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pseudo-Science

I suppose there's no harm in anyone getting the swine flu vaccine. This year, there are indications that most of the flu will be swine flu, so it makes more sense to get the swine flu vaccine than the other one. My wife and I have had the flu shot several years in a row, beginning when our medically fragile daughter was living with us. This will be the first year in some time when I don't get any flu shot.

I think it's silly to wait in line for hours for the swine flu shot. Maybe I'd think differently if I had young children, but there is a cost to spending so much time on that one task; crowds are exactly where bugs of all kinds are spread; and the risk of serious cases of swine flu is extremely small. People in Ontario have been frightened by the death of a previously healthy teenage boy, but such things happen every flu season.

Then comes the Atlantic Online:

There is little evidence that either flu vaccine or anti-virals like Tamiflu actually reduce mortality from flu.

There is a co-relation: Those who are vaccinated, overall, have significantly lower death rates, from all causes, than those who are not vaccinated, with little control as to whether they are otherwise the same kind of population. There is good evidence that the population that goes to the trouble of getting vaccinated is healthier in the first place, and young healthy people get more benefit from vaccine--their immune system gets more of a boost--than the older, sicker people who are more likely to die from flu. The vaccine may be effective for those who don't need it, and ineffective for those who do need it.

One expert recommends controlled trials--two populations, otherwise identical in critical respects including age and health, one given vaccine, the other a placebo. But of course if you believe the vaccine saves lives, the trials would seem unethical.

My biggest concern is that, once again, pseudo-science is triumphing over science. Australia normally has about 3,000 flu deaths every winter. The winter that just ended for them, they had about 1,000--mostly swine flu. This was a good year, not a bad year. Is it more likely to kill healthy young people in comparison to regular flu, which disproportionately kills frail elderly people? Maybe there is a bit of a shift, but it is still true that the general healthy population is at extremely low risk. Yet there is a kind of mass hysteria.

How many of the people lining up for flu shots are the same people who oppose the use of the MMR shot in chilren--a proven life-saver? Incredibly, there is an outbreak of mumps in Brooklyn, affecting kids as old as 15--going back to roughly when the anti-MMR campaign picked up steam.

In recent weeks, in addition to the young man dying of flu, a young Canadian woman was killed by coyotes in a national park. There is no evidence of anyone saying "stay away from that park," or from parks in general, or cull a lot of coyotes, or anything like that. Risk is a part of life.

I go back again to Gulliver's Travels. In the third voyage, scientific agriculture is being applied on earth, and turning good land into deserts. Swift may have some hope that at least the people closest to this phenomenon won't be completely fooled as to the promise of science. Up on the flying island, things in a way are worse. The people there don't have to work with their hands, and they have no idea how food or anything else is produced. They are sophisticated in their scientific thinking, yet they are increasingly obsessed with only two topics: their innermost selves, and whether the sun is going to explode or something like that. Today there is obviously an analogy to Buddhism/yoga/self-realization, on the one hand, and fears of global warming, supermarket food, beneficial vaccines and epidemics, on the other. Moderns turned away from ancient wisdom in order to benefit from modern science. Are we going to turn away from modern science in a kind of mass hysteria?

I made my son laugh by saying I also wonder about Prime Minister Harper's role in all this. Has he ordered officials to utter all their warnings about pandemic, so that he can be the hero who somehow delivers a bunch of vaccine? If so, it's not working--they are already a bit short of vaccine. But he may have learned from Bush the advantages of being the King of Fear. The treatment of swine flu by public officials has been a disgrace. It makes the whole public sector look bad--like no one knows how to run a Sunday School picnic. And that may suit Harper as well.

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