Swine on the Mind

news_swineOpinions are split when it comes to the size of the H1N1 pandemic, but most doctors still recommend the vaccine

After ramping up a vaccination campaign larger than any since polio, public health agencies now say swine flu is on its way out. While some doctors question whether swine flu was ever truly as widespread as it was made out to be, warnings that H1N1 could infect half of all Americans and befell 90,000 came from the highest health authorities, the largest media outlets—even the President.

In late November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that H1N1 cases have appeared in all regions of the country, besides a few isolated areas like Hawaii, and has claimed about 4,000 lives so far. The World Health Organization (WHO) also announced “early signs of a peak” in the U.S., saying it expects infections to continue to decline.

As its best defense against swine flu, a type-A influenza that began in pig herds, the government spent $2 billion buying up the H1N1 vaccine—the safety and efficacy of which some doctors doubt. Health officials from Washington D.C. to Santa Cruz continue to advise the public to get vaccinated, with the first vaccines going to at risk groups like pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses such as lung cancer or AIDS. But the public’s horse sense, or should we say “pig sense,” has led many to avoid vaccination.

As of Nov. 9, 25 people had been hospitalized in Santa Cruz County for “probable or confirmed” H1N1, five of whom ended up in the ICU and one who died. As of Nov. 19, 7,500 vaccinations had been administered by the county’s two public health clinics; 32,240 doses have been received in the entire county.

Fifty-five percent of Americans plan to “just say no” to a swine flu shot, according to a CNN poll. Santa Cruz, however, seems to be a more skeptical county than most when it comes to vaccines. The county has a vaccination rate of around 15 percent according to Beth Landes, an H1N1 spokesperson at the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency. As of Nov. 9, 25 people had been hospitalized in the county for “probable or confirmed” H1N1, five of whom ended up in the ICU and one who died, Landes says. Seven thousand-five hundred vaccinations were administered by the county’s two public health clinics as of Nov. 19; 32,240 doses have been received in the entire county.

While the U.S. government ordered some 250 million doses of the swine flu vaccine, and many clinics report running out of it, it is unclear whether the size of the problem required such a stockpile. Our government spent a billion dollars on avian flu vaccines, an illness the WHO reports killed just 250 people worldwide, while SARS infected about 8,000 people, killed around 800, and cost the world $80 billion. To some, the disease craze has begun to seem like a farce, a point that was made clear locally on Halloween night, when pig costumed people wearing surgical masks took to the streets of Santa Cruz.

However, those questioning the purported danger of swine flu, or the safety of the H1N1 vaccine, have generally been handed the dunce’s cap. Why? Vaccines are widely understood to be the single greatest lifesavers in medicine—but only if the public is willing to take them. Many MDs believe that administering millions of vaccines against swine flu is a smart precaution, even if, in the end, the disease turns out to be a dud.

“I would rather give the vaccine and be wrong and know I’ve done all I can to protect my patients, than have somebody die and go, ‘Gee, well, I should have vaccinated,’” says Dr. Dawn Motyka, a Family Practice doctor and medical acupuncturist in Santa Cruz. Like many doctors, when Motyka first looked into it, she feared a “nightmare scenario,” a repeat of the Spanish flu. Between 1918 and 1919, the Spanish flu killed between 40 and 100 million people, and may have even played a factor in ending WWI.

Fear of a major flu outbreak like the Spanish flu also fueled vaccination campaigns during the last two flu pandemics, in 1957 and 1968, but neither of these outbreaks became major killers. Now that our third flu pandemic is looking like a blow out, it may become less taboo to ask at what point a disease is serious enough to warrant spending billions of dollars to vaccinate every man, woman, and child; and, what are the risks?

While the mainstream medical community has put its weight behind the swine flu vaccine, seeing it as a sensible precaution with few drawbacks, a minority of doctors has questioned the data surrounding the disease. The first big question concerns how many people have really had swine flu.

The original claims on the pandemic proportions of swine flu came from the WHO. Yet the WHO actually changed the definition of “pandemic” on June 11, shortly before it announced swine flu to be one. Removed from the definition were the requirements that the disease cause many people to fall seriously ill, and cause many to die. In fact, on Nov. 8, the WHO said that worldwide, 6,260 people have died of swine flu.

“There was a lot of potential for a deadly pandemic—it  [swine flu] is very widespread,” says Dr. Lonna Larsh, a holistic family doctor in Santa Cruz. “Technically it is a pandemic, and fortunately it’s not as deadly as it could be. The whole vaccine industry has said so many people are dying, but it is actually less deadly than regular seasonal flu. It’s fear; that’s why all the money is being spent [on vaccines].”

WHO’s determination of a pandemic classification for H1N1 provided the original impetus to launch a vaccination program, but some doctors complained that that status had not been adequately verified.

“I am concerned WHO’s communications is corrupted by the fact [that] they push the buttons in the public’s brains that will raise the most funds,” William Aldis, a retired senior WHO official who worked on the bird flu crisis, was quoted as saying in a Huffington Post article from Sept. 24. “That is incompatible with what the organization should be doing: serving the public with technically correct factual information, pure and simple.”

Questions over the numbers also arose in the U.S. when the CDC changed its reporting rules last July. Prior, doctors had to test patients to see what flu strain they had: H1N1, or another strain. When doctors stopped testing, they began to categorize patients as having swine flu without a test, which resulted in ballooning numbers. While the latest set of numbers released by the CDC show swine flu cases to be declining, on Nov. 11, the Center estimated a staggering 22 million have had H1N1 since April, when the disease emerged, and 3,900 have died. Dr. Motyka says these numbers are “absolute garbage.” If they are accurate, swine flu is actually 20 times less dangerous than seasonal flu strains in a typical year, according to the CDC’s own data. What this data implies is not that the swine flu is safe, but that their figures may be questionable.

While the CDC admits its figure is based on estimates, if the numbers are potentially far off, then why were they broadcast so far and wide? And, why did they call a halt to testing for flu strain? As it turns out, stopping these tests is quite normal once a disease is determined to be widespread. According to the CDC’s website, they called for a halt to so-called “subtyping” of flu strains because any further testing of a proven disease would put an unnecessary resource strain on state health bodies.

Dr. Bela Matyas, California’s acting chief of emergency preparedness and response, told CBS news in October that, “With CDC’s fallback position, there are so many uncertainties with who’s being counted, it’s hard to know how much we’re seeing is due to H1N1 flu rather than a mix of influenza diseases generally.”

Some of the most outspoken critics of the official story on swine flu have come from overseas. On Oct. 10, Der Spiegel, a weekly German magazine with a circulation of one million, quoted a number of German health authorities that believe the swine flu threat was warped to sell more vaccines. Wolf-Dieter Ludwig, chairman of the Pharmaceutical Commission of German Physicians, said his group was “unhappy about this vaccination campaign,” and that German “health authorities have been led astray by a campaign by pharmaceutical companies who simply want to make money from an alleged threat.”

In Hungary, doctors are resisting orders to vaccinate the public for swine flu, and in the eastern European country Belarus the president recently accused drug companies of fomenting panic to boost profits. “I know very well what is going on in this super-corrupt, gangster circle of medicine producers,” President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe earlier this month.  “Today, [pharmaceutical companies] squeal like swine; tomorrow, perhaps, they’ll purr like cats or moo like cows,” Lukashenka said.

Santa Cruz’s Dr. Motyka says she doesn’t see a conspiracy involved, but acknowledges that “some capitalists made windfall profit,” because companies that make the swine flu vaccine also make the seasonal vaccine, and profited off both this year.

Another concern is whether the vaccine works and is safe. Under the best of circumstances, vaccines should go through a number of trials over a longer time period to confirm their safety, as side effects like seizures and dementia can take months to manifest. The H1N1 vaccine, on the other hand, went through a fast track testing period—in some areas it was approved in just five days. Additionally, the UK, Canada and the U.S. have promised to shield companies producing the H1N1 vaccines from lawsuits because no insurance company would agree to cover damages caused by the vaccine.

Dr. Drew Maris at the Scotts Valley Medical Clinic says despite the fast track, the vaccine is safe. “The vaccine didn’t go though the length of vaccine testing that something like the chicken pox vaccine or the shingles vaccine went though, but also our yearly flu vaccine doesn’t go through that long of testing,” he says. “The process for making vaccines has been around for over 100 years. It’s tried and true.”

Some doctors have criticized the vaccine for containing formaldehyde, insect repellent, and mercury. In the Der Spiegel article, the president of the German Company for General and Family Medicine Michael Kochen warned pediatricians that, “The risks [of giving the vaccine] outweigh the benefits.” And, the president of the country’s professional pediatric association Wolfram Hartmann accused the German government of issuing “scientifically false statements” about H1N1. He warned that due to the mercury and adjuvant additive in the vaccine, children under three should not be given the shots. “The vaccine has not been tested at all on this group; that is why the risk is simply too great to use it on them,” he told Der Spiegel. While Germany uses the questionable additive adjuvant in its vaccines, US vaccines don’t contain it, although some vaccines do contain small amounts of mercury.

Dr. Larsh thinks the vaccine is safe, but questions its effectiveness. “It hasn’t been out long enough for us to know how it works,” she says.    Regardless of such questions, in the view of many doctors, there is no question whether the vaccine is safe or effective. Dr. Motyka for example, got the swine flu vaccine herself early on, and believes that as a health worker on the frontlines, she needs every form of protection she can get.

“If there was a vaccine for every disease that existed, I’d be right up there in front of the line for every single one of them,” she says, adding that she would give herself “time to process the toxins associated with each vaccine.”

Half-jokingly, she adds, “If I was a librarian on a space station I wouldn’t get any vaccines, but in my situation, why on earth wouldn’t I?”

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