Along with the flu shot advertisements are warnings the public about the health risks if they opt out. This leg of the flu shot campaign is propped up by statistics that some believe is hype propaganda designed as a fear tactic to boost vaccine sales. But is this all true?
Much has been written on Peter Doshi’s 2005 and 2013 articles about the deception of flu statistics. There’s no middle ground for those writing about Doshi. The articles either condemn or embrace Doshi’s conclusions.
On December 10, 2005, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and US National Library of Medicine (NLM) website published a paper written by graduate student Peter Doshi that states, “US data on influenza deaths are a mess. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges a difference between flu death and flu associated death yet uses the terms interchangeably” (2).
Doshi further states that the two sets of statistics – official estimates and the vital statistics data for the nation – have “significant statistical incompatibilities.”
What became a reference point for those arguing against the flu vaccine was Doshi’s next statement that’s often considered very insightful into the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies.
The Doshi Articles
Doshi states, “Compounding these problems is a marketing of fear—a CDC communications strategy in which medical experts ‘predict dire outcomes’ during flu seasons.”
Doshi’s paper basically claims that the flu statistics are flawed since people who die from flu and those who die from secondary illnesses, such as pneumonia are lumped together. Many flu vaccine advocates criticize Doshi and accuse anti-flu vaccine advocates of misconstruing Doshi’s summarization and using it as an argument against flu vaccinations.
In his paper, Doshi quotes the Director of Harvard University Health Services, David Rosenthal saying, “People don’t necessarily die, per se, of the [flu] virus—the viraemia. What they die of is a secondary pneumonia. So many of these pneumonias are not viral pneumonias but secondary [pneumonias].”
Dr. Rosenthal states that the flu/pneumonia relationship reflected in statistics isn’t “unique”. He points out that drugs that suppress stomach acid set up a “higher risk of community acquired pneumonia, but such drugs and pneumonia are not compiled as a single statistic.”
SCDC Makes No Distinction between Flu and Pneumonia Deaths
While lumping together of flu and pneumonia deaths is problematic, Doshi points to a bigger problem, the CDC’s model; it doesn’t use statistics based solely on cases verified by testing for the flu virus.
Doshi uses an example of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), “influenza and pneumonia” death statistics for 2001. The CDC reported that 62,034 people died from the flu that year. However, Doshi points out that 61,777 “were attributed to pneumonia and 257 to flu, and in only 18 cases was flu virus positively identified.”
That’s 18 verified cases of flu virus deaths out of a total of 63,034 deaths.
Doshi writes that since the majority of cases “are never tested for virus infection…CDC considers these [NCHS] figures to be a very substantial undercounting of the true number of deaths from influenza. Therefore, the CDC uses indirect modelling methods to estimate the number of deaths associated with influenza.”
More importantly, the CDC model calculated 36,155 people die annually from “influenza associated underlying respiratory and circulatory causes” (JAMA 2003;289: 179-86 [PubMed]).
This sounds like a staggering number, but Doshi points out that less than one-fourth –8,097 were “flu or flu associated underlying pneumonia deaths.”
He takes the CDC to task since the 36,000+ number that is ‘publicized’ isn’t an estimate of deaths from flu, but simply a model generated estimate of “flu-associated” deaths.
Doshi further examines the CDC’s 2003 JAMA article. Lead author of the article, William Thompson of the CDC’s National Immunization Program (NIP) explained “influenza-associated mortality”. Thompson stated that rate of flu-associated deaths is “a statistical association between deaths and viral data available.”
At the same time, he states that this association “does not imply an underlying cause of death: Based on modelling, we think it’s associated. I don’t know that we would say that it’s the underlying cause of death.”
Pro Vaccine Advocates Dismiss Doshi Articles
As you might suspect, vaccine advocates dismiss Doshi’s 2005 and his later 2013 articles where he discusses the ineffectiveness of the flu vaccine.
Pro flu vaccine articles readily dismiss the questions Doshi raises and state that his credentials don’t qualify him to assess the flu vaccine since he isn’t a virologist or epidemiologist. He’s an anthropologist doing “comparative effectiveness research” (3).
One fact that is completely ignored in many articles is which flu strains are included in the vaccine each year. The CDC calls it a “good match” when the vaccine viruses are “closely related” to the actual “influenza viruses” people ultimately contract (4).
It’s an educated gamble that you’ll receive the right strain that hits during flu season, but there’s always the chance the vaccine won’t include the culprit flu viruses.
Clearly, there are two sides to the discussion of flu vaccines and their effectiveness. Anti-vaccine advocates believe vaccines simply don’t work and are a hoax perpetrated to generate revenue for drug companies. Pro-vaccine advocates encourage everyone to get a flu shot.
In November 2012, the Public Health Agency of Canada press release stated, “Every year, between 2,000 and 8,000 Canadians die of the flu and its complications.” The same statistics were cited by the Canadian Medical Association Journal and Canada’s chief public health officer.
CBC News journalist Kelly Crowe reported that in response to these statistics, Dr. Michael Gardam, then director of the infection prevention and control unit at the University Health Network in Toronto said, “This is a scientific guess. This is not the truth” (5).
Like the US CDC statistics, the Canadian stats aren’t “based on body counts, lab tests or autopsies”. And, like the CDC, the Canadian stats are produced by a computer model based on a mathematical formula.
The Canadian model “counts all respiratory and circulatory deaths — that’s death from heart and lung failure — as flu deaths.”
Canada’s Flu Computer Model Said to Be Flawed
Gardam told Crowe the statistics could “include people who died of a heart attack that had nothing to do with flu…” Also included are deaths with causes listed as influenza and pneumonia.
Unlike the US CDC model, the Canadian model can also include those who died from poison, “slippery sidewalks, snowy roads, freezing temperatures, plus all the winter heart failure, lung failure and deaths from cancer.”
And, to further complicate the data, one model used automatically classifies “every extra death that happens in the winter is a flu death”. The basic formula used in this particular model and published in the CBC News read “winter deaths (minus) summer deaths = death by flu virus.”
Crowe asked Dr. Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration how reliable he [Crowe] thought these models were. He replied, “I don’t think they’re reliable at all.”
Most people aren’t aware that there’s over 200 viruses that cause influenza as well as “influenza-life illness (ILI)”. There’s only one way to know if a person has a flu virus and which strain it is and that’s with a lab test. The Cochrane Collaboration (based in Rome, Italy) states that these viruses, “rarely lead to death or serious illness” (6).
The Cochrane Collaboration also states, “At best, vaccines may only be effective against influenza A and B, which represent about 10% of all circulating viruses.” Most flu vaccines include “two type A and one B strains.”
In March 2014, the Cochrane team reviewed 90 influenza studies, many industry funded:
–> 69 studies were clinical trials with over 70,000 people participating.
–> 27 studies were comparative cohort with 8 million people participating.
–> 20 case-control studies with 25,000 people participating.
–> 16 studies, 23 (three case-control and 20 cohort studies) performed during pregnancy with 1.6 million mother-child couples.
The team concluded, “Influenza vaccines have a very modest effect in reducing influenza symptoms and working days lost in the general population, including pregnant women.”
The team further stated, “No evidence of association between influenza vaccination and serious adverse events was found in the comparative studies considered in the review.”
Injecting something into your body should be a personal decision. Each person needs to decide first if s/he believes in the effectiveness of vaccines and if the flu vaccine will protect against the flu. And, finally, each person must decide if it’s worth a shot.