Halvorsen on Swine Flu and Vaccines in The Times

July 26, 2009 at 4:06 pm (Anti-Vaccination, Media, Richard Halvorsen) (, , , , , , , )

Here is an article on swine flu and vaccination written for The Times by guest contributor Dr Richard Halvorsen. Background: Halvorsen runs a clinic that offers single vaccines for measles and rubella (at a cost of £95 each), and he has also contributed to prolonging the media’s MMR hoax by writing pieces such as this one (an extract from his book “The Truth About Vaccines” in which he recommended that it may “be worth vaccinating against measles with a single vaccine”).

Halvorsen writes that “swine flu is far milder than we first feared, so the case for vaccinating millions of healthy adults against a disease that is no more unpleasant than a bad cold is questionable” which ignores the fact that the virus could yet mutate into a more virulent strain. As the WHO warned recently “the [swine flu] virus would, like all viruses, circulate more widely in colder weather and possibly mutate. As the days get shorter, so the need for the vaccine will grow” (from the scotsman.com website).

He then raises doubts that the vaccine will be safe and effective for certain groups, including children under five. To back this up, he claims that a number of trials have failed to show benefit of flu vaccination on asthma in children (and claims that one trial “suggested that the vaccine made asthma worse”). I am unclear as to why Halvorsen chose to use benefit of vaccination on asthma as the primary objective. I am also unclear as to why he referred to an adverse effect of influenza vaccination on asthma on the basis of a single study, while failing to inform readers as to the nature of this study or the number of children that would likely be affected were the results of the study demonstrating a genuine negative effect of vaccination. This paper notes, in the section headed “Safety of the influenza vaccines in children”, that “randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled multicenter study of 2,032 patients with asthma, 712 of whom were aged 3 to 18 years, no asthma exacerbations were observed among those vaccinated up to 2 weeks after vaccination” and later (under “Efficacy of the influenza vaccine in children”) states that “Kramarz et al reported efficacy in asthma patients for reducing asthma exacerbations after vaccination with the inactivated influenza vaccine”. I am unable to report on the paper that Halvorsen relies upon, as no citation or link is provided (the lack of citations and links to original research is, sadly, still customary in the mainstream media and this lack continues to hinder informed discussion).

Halvorsen goes on to raise the issue of Guillain-Barré syndrome, referring to a swine flu vaccine used in America in 1976, and claims that:

Research later estimated that there was one case of GBS caused by every 100,000 swine flu vaccines given. If the current vaccine caused a similar rate of cases, then we could expect hundreds of people to get GBS, some of whom will suffer permanent paralysis or die. [My italics - I think this is a rather big "if".]

Again, no link or citation is given. The reader must guess as to the nature of the research. By chance, I noticed a similar claim on Wikipedia and will now link to the source of the claim: here. The article states that “The 1978 book “The Swine Flu Affair” revealed that developing Guillain-Barré syndrome was about 11 times greater with the vaccination than without. Yet it noted that the risk was very low; about one in 105,000 who were vaccinated got it.” I have no idea whether the research Halvorsen refers to is the 1978 book or how rigorously the author of the book researched swine flu vaccination and Guillain-Barré syndrome. There are problems with referring to research but failing to give citations or links (nobody can check the research for themselves, for one thing) and with using a book as a source (books tend not to be indexed on Pubmed, so can’t be easily checked – it may not even be possible to buy a copy). Meanwhile, a paper I found on Pubmed states that of adverse events reported following inoculation with flu vaccines (note: not specifically swine flu) “Guillain-Barré syndrome was the most frequently reported serious event (0.70 reports per million vaccinations)” and the CDC website states that “Several studies have been done to evaluate if other flu vaccines since 1976 were associated with GBS. Only one of the studies showed an association. That study suggested that one person out of 1 million vaccinated persons may be at risk of GBS associated with the vaccine.” (Annoyingly, the CDC page, like The Times’ online article, fails to cite or link to the original research.)

What would I say to The Times about this article? Well, I would recommend that they think very carefully in future before inviting comment on vaccination from someone who played a part in the MMR scare and who may be looking to promote their clinic which offers single vaccines or, say, a book on vaccination that is due to be published shortly. Also, I would ask that when they publish an article that refers to research supporting the views of the author of a comment piece they cite the research or (even better) link directly to it. It isn’t difficult, it isn’t impractical and it doesn’t make your articles somehow less accessible to the layman reader.

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8 Comments

  1. Dr*T said,

    Nice post – I was wanting to write something about Halvorsen’s Times/BBC nonsense but lack of time (and an overarching lack of knowledge) won the day.

    The broader point I think is that the papers refuse to be called to account for the their role in the MMR hoax, instead blaming it entirely on Wakefield. I find it galling that the cranks from the MMR hoax are being wheeled out again to spread their disinformation to an already bewildered public.

  2. michaelgrayer said,

    Good post. I had a bash at giving the Halvorsen article the once-over over on my blog (http://www.nontoxic.org.uk/?p=91), mainly because I had done so in the comments section of the article, though when I submitted it, all my writing disappeared before I could copy and paste it and fell into a “your comment is awaiting moderation” black hole. It still has not appeared.

    Looks like we’ve come to roughly the same conclusions, only you’ve put your critique much better than I could possibly manage :)

  3. AndyD said,

    If your media are anything like ours in Oz, then the imminent release of a book is enough reason to seek comment from the author and build a story around it. All too often they appear to be little more than elaborate advertorials.

    It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine some of these stories start life as a media release for the book (or lecture or movie or documentary…).

    Of course, the same could be said of Singh’s infamous article :)

  4. Sandy5 said,

    Perhaps the lack of linking to research in articles like this is deliberate. Stating a statistic or supposed fact without citation might be intended to give the impression that it is already a well established fact that needs no further explanation. A citation of a research paper or similar could imply some sort of argument that requires backing up and hence there could be some alternative explanation in a different paper.

    Leaving out the citation could, somehow, lend gravitas or authority to an argument that it doesn’t deserve. Just a thought.

  5. michaelgrayer said,

    Sandy5:

    I dare say that it is deliberate. Which makes it all the more deceitful (hmm… “deliberate deception”, where have we heard that before?) It’s very much like the “and we all know what happens when…” line of persuasion which essentially dares the arguer to admit his/her ignorance of what happens. It takes a certain amount of bravery to dispute something which is framed as though it’s common knowledge.

    It certainly makes it much harder to argue against something when that something is obscured.

  6. jdc325 said,

    I absolutely agree Dr* T – I think it could be argued that Wakefield has been scapegoated by the media, although that implies that he was innocent, and I don’t think he was entirely innocent. I think that however much responsibility one thinks that Wakefield bears, the media are at least as blameworthy.

    @michaelgrayer: thank you. I’ve just read your piece and I’m impressed. I noticed this point in particular: “it is simply a number on its own and without any comparison figure as to the number of unvaccinated people who might be expected to contract swine flu or even the effectiveness of other vaccines as a crude yardstick, it is completely meaningless”. I recently wrote about somebody else using a single figure with no context and, coincidentally, it was somebody writing about vaccines. If I see any more examples of this I’m going to start to wonder if it’s a tactic.

    @AndyD: I think “advertorial” is a good way of describing Halvorsen’s article. Thanks.

    @Sandy5: “Stating a statistic or supposed fact without citation might be intended to give the impression that it is already a well established fact that needs no further explanation.” That’s an interesting thought. I had assumed that it was down to the mainstream media’s general dislike for linking to or citing original research – they seem to prefer to interpret research for us despite their dismal record in doing so accurately. I wrote about this before and wondered if: the media believe their audience to be unintelligent and thus unable to understand academic papers; the media believe that their coverage of academic papers is so excellent that there will be no need for anyone to read the original paper; or the journalists concerned believe that letting us read the papers for ourselves would make them superfluous. I actually wrote to the Mail, Telegraph, Independent, BBC, Guardian, and Observer to ask them to change their policy but got no response.

  7. dt said,

    Halvorsen’s nonsense made my blood boil too. I guess we will see more of this as the pandemic progresses.

    Getting the vaccine is a risk/benefit calculation; if there is a good chance of catching the natural wild-type H1N1 virus (which there is) then one is at risk of it’s complications (GBS being one of them). That being the case, getting vaccinated with flu vaccine that will have a measurable but lower risk of causing GBS as one of its side effects makes perfect sense.

    I was too busy to do a blog response myself on this, but will try and incorporate it into a piece about flu vaccine side effects when I have a chance. Just now I’m too busy.
    http://layscience.net/blog/57

  8. jdc325 said,

    Look forward to reading your take on Halvorsen’s article DT.

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