Hard News by Russell Brown

Treading Carefully

When I wrote Friday's blog I didn't expect to be leading Nine to Noon today on the strength of it. But I guess if you say something once, you should be prepared to say it again. It was flattering to hear Linda Clark tell everyone how "influential" Hard News is, but also a little unnerving: I don't wish for what I said to be taken as advice against having children vaccinated.

As I noted on Friday, you only need to read the literature to disabuse yourself of some of the wilder claims about this programme. Also, there is no evidence of long-term adverse reactions to MeNZB.

But I think the concerns I've expressed about the way the programme has been handled are valid. Parents and schools might not have been so surprised by the impact of the vaccine had the printed consumer advice not been so bland; if it had included the kind of detail available in the Medsafe data sheet on MeNZB.

The fact is that the schools attended by our two children have been surprised at the impact of the vaccine, and by the level of consequent absences. It seems likely to me that our son suffered as badly as he did from the flu (ie: much worse than the other two family members who got it) because he was either infected in a weakened state or was infected when he had his second shot; our school-age babysitter, who ended up in hospital after her first jab, was actually told that she got so sick because she probably had a flu infection that hadn't manifested when she presented for a shot. It's reasonable to ask whether the current "unheard of" rate of absence from central Auckland schools reflects something similar. (And even if it is simply an unusually virulent flu, whether this is a good time to be carrying out the vaccination cycle.)

Anyway, our 14-year-old is feeling better but is still at home. If he goes back for a third shot, it will be to a GP, on a Friday afternoon, to give him the weekend to recover, and it won't be until he's back to robust health.

PA reader Bonnie gave me a ticking off:

Basically, anecdotal evidence isn't evidence of anything but the possibility of something happening. It can't be used to support statements like "adverse responses to the vaccine have been both more significant and more widespread than the Ministry of Health has indicated." Only an investigation with a large representative sample can work out whether something is really more widespread than previously believed. An anecdotal sample is likely to be skewed by its size or its confirmation bias.

Not only that, even if event B follows event A, it doesn't mean that A caused B. Feeling ill after having had a vaccination may be a coincidence (especially when other diseases are around) - anecdotal evidence can't prove or disprove this. It can make people needlessly fearful, though.

I admired the rigorous attention you paid to the science when you covered the GE debate. Surely it's worth using the same tools to address this issue, especially when the consequences are far more serious. I agree people should make informed choices - fallacious reasoning doesn't help people do this.

Fair enough: you might even say that the words "anecdotal" and "evidence" should never be used together. There is a sophisticated reporting project built into the vaccination programme, and we'll duly learn from that - as we will learn about the long-term efficacy of the vaccine itself (it can presently only be said that three shots offer most people immunity for "a number of years"). In the meantime, I don't think wishing that parents had been given better information equates to making people "needlessly fearful", and it was nice to hear a doctor emphatically agreeing with me in an email later read out by Linda Clark. (He used the word "spin", but I don't have the information or reason to use words like that.)

This just in from PA reader Karl Woodhead. I think it makes the point about information extremely well:

I agree with what I think is your main point - that the information we were given as parents was poor and left us unprepared for what happened following the vaccination.

We took our 3 1/2 month old son in for the first vaccination last week. I asked "what are the likely side-effects" and was told that on that day there was likely to be a bit of a temperature and maybe some grizzliness, but that's all.

Until I read the Medsafe sheet you linked to, we didn't link the vaccination to the subsequent inability to sleep for longer than 90 minutes (after having started sleeping 9 hours), and the severe irritability. This all lasted about five days and we had all manner of things checked out - ears, flu, etc. But if we had known the side effects, we would have been less concerned. We would still have had him vaccinated, but we would have had a better week as we would have understood what was happening.

Anyway, enough of being a public health cause celebre. I have work to do. Politics tomorrow, then. In the meantime: Gordon Paynter and Jordan Carter have both noted this story in the Capital Times about bizarre goings-on at Wellington City Council with respect to approval for the now-scuttled V8 race. One councillor was banned from voting after it was decided that he had already made up his mind. Um, and Kerry Prendergast hadn't?

PS: 3 News has just called to ask if I'd go on camera for tonight's bulletin. I had to disappoint them. What I've said above is all I'm going to say. That's it.