Flu shots – what do the experts say?

Epidemiologist Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration says he’s not anti-vaccine, but he is anti-poor evidence. The Cochrane Collaboration is a highly regarded, international, not for profit network which evaluates research on a topic and provides independent, unbiased information.

Jefferson maintains that large studies have not been carried out to see just how effective flu vaccines really are, or aren’t. One rationale often used is that it is unethical to give a placebo. Jefferson says if that is a problem, then why aren’t studies randomized against masks, hand-washing or gloves? These measures have been proven to work against all strains of the flu, unlike vaccines.

Some of the studies Jefferson has examined have patently ridiculous conclusions. One which looked at at flu vaccines for the elderly found that the shot protected not only against influenza, but against death from stroke, hypothermia, accidents, heart attack and in fact most common causes of death. It would be a modern medical miracle if it were real.

The Cochrane systematic review found almost three quarters of studies were considered to be of poor quality with ‘overoptimistic’ conclusions, or in other words, the results and the summary don’t tally. Higher quality and government funded studies were less likely to favour vaccines.

Regarding pandemic predictions, Jefferson says that the new WHO definition of pandemic omits that it should cause a large amount of illness or death in a population. It’s now just a new virus which transmits quickly and that we have low immunity to. In fact he feels there is an industry built around these predictions, few of which have any substance. In actuality the amount of people who catch or die from influenza is overestimated, with only 7-15% of influenza like illnesses being attributable to the virus. Much of what we think is the flu is not, and physicians and patients alike cannot tell the difference without specialised testing. Vaccines aren’t any use against these ‘influenza like illnesses’ (ILI) – comprised of up to 200 different pathogens – as they are only protective against certain strains of the flu. Government campaigns to promote flu shots provide ‘data’ purporting to show large amounts of illness and deaths attributed to the flu; but in reality they are unsure how much of it is flu and how much is ILI as surveillance systems cannot differentiate.

Peter Doshi is an assistant professor of pharmaceutical health services research in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland and associate editor at The BMJ. He has worked with the Cochrane Collaboration since 2009 reviewing antiviral drugs for influenza.

In a 2013 feature which ran in JAMA on the flu, Doshi said that “the disease is less fearful than advertised, the vaccines are less beneficial than believed, and the harms of vaccines are not easily dismissed.” He cited the Australian Fluvax debacle and the European narcolepsy fiasco as examples of safety concerns. Doshi also contends that influenza vaccines are aggressively marketed with very little evidence that they work. He calls it ‘disease mongering’ – sales tactics which try to increase the uptake of new products and to make you think that pharmaceuticals should be a normal part of everyday life.

And yes it was also Doshi who worked on the Cochrane Collaboration review of Tamiflu which found that there was a ‘paucity of good data’ supporting the claim that Tamiflu reduced complications from the flu. In addition he campaigns for transparency from the drug companies, asking them to hand over data on clinical trials.  As you can imagine, these activities make him a target for vaccine proselytizers.

Vaccine evangelist/science blogger Skeptical Raptor, disses Doshi when he claims he is not on the faculty at Maryland (he is) and suggests that he doesn’t have a background in research despite the fact that the BMJ and Cochrane Collaboration feel he is amply qualified to comment on these matters. After all he is not doing ‘research’ in the lab, and never claims to have – he is reviewing research that is already available and finding it somewhat lacking. Skeptical Raptor writes so often about Peter Doshi that one must assume that he feels his ‘debunking’ has failed and he needs to back it up with more misinformation.

Doshi is not the only target for the science bloggers- Orac or David Gorski who describes himself as a surgeon/scientist has had a go at Tom Jefferson. On his page’ Respectful Insolence’ Orac’s best attempt to disparage him boiled down to a) he’s a boring dinner companion and b) “Jefferson typically fails to consider the totality of evidence into context and draw conclusions based on more than a very narrow set of observations.”

Considering that Jefferson’s review of flu studies encompassed 274 papers published between 1948 and 2007, I am unable to understand how this fails to consider the totality of evidence, but there you  go, vaccine zealots are undeterred by credible reviews carried out by credible researchers.


Do Flu Vaccines Really Work? A Skeptic’s View

Relation of study quality, concordance, take home message, funding, and impact in studies of influenza vaccines: systematic review

Der Spiegel 07/21/2009

Interview with Epidemiologist Tom Jefferson

‘A Whole Industry Is Waiting For A Pandemic’


 Dr Tom Jefferson on influenza vaccination


 Influenza Vaccines Time for a Rethink


 Influenza: marketing vaccine by marketing disease


Neuraminidase inhibitors for preventing and treating influenza in healthy adults: systematic review and meta-analysis

The Cochrane Collaborative’s Tom Jefferson makes the huge mistake of appearing on Gary Null’s show



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