How Poor Scientific Literacy Torpedoed the Flu Vaccine

The 2014-2015 flu season was a particularly bad one, when compared with some other years. Sometimes it just turns out like that. The flu virus evolves quickly and ferociously, making it tough to track and tough to predict, though pharmaceutical companies and government agencies certainly try, given what they know about the virus and how it tends to evolve. But you can’t predict everything, especially when it comes to nature, and sometimes the flu goes its own way, no matter which strains the vaccine targets.

That’s when the vaccine becomes less effective. Designed to target the strains labs believe will be most prevalent during a given flu season, flu vaccines require a lot of careful engineering, and they invariably miss multiple strains that make the rounds. You can’t vaccinate against every conceivable flu strain; you shoot for broad coverage and hope that organised efforts will greatly reduce the risks of contracting flu and will limit the spread of the virus.

This works most effectively when as many people are vaccinated as possible, ensuring that the virus is stopped in its tracks relatively quickly. If Person A gets the flu and passes it to Person B, but Person B is vaccinated, the virus isn’t going anywhere. If Person B didn’t get vaccinated against that strain of flu, she’s going to pass it to a whole new constellation of patients — increasing the risk that the virus will keep spreading and evolving. And increasing the risk that it will cause serious illness in an unvaccinated person, like a baby too young for immunisation or an older adult or someone who is immunocompromised and thus can’t take the vaccine.

And, sometimes, perfectly health individuals who have been vaccinated but not necessarily against that strain, or with immune systems that didn’t quite kick in to provide more complete immunoprotection. It happens. And it’s sometimes terrible, as the flu is often particularly vicious for young adults, leading to pneumonia and other complications that may eventually cause death. The flu is a harsh mistress, and she’s not terribly picky when it comes to choosing her victims. Thus, the desire to distribute flu vaccines early and hit as much of the population as possible.

This year, though, the predictions didn’t work. Sometimes that happens. A flu strain that hadn’t been included in the vaccine began to circulate, making the vaccine less effective — it offered about 25% protection, depending on region and vaccine. That’s much less than the usual level of protection, but it is substantially more than zero, especially when one considers the personal risks of flu. When an infection can be fatal, a 25% chance of preventing it versus a 0% chance sounds like much better odds — I know which set I’d take, and which set I did in fact take when I was vaccinated in early October.

But the media didn’t report it this way. The media went for headlines like ‘flu vaccine ineffective.’ Which suggested that the vaccine was worthless — you might as well just inject some saline solution or something into patients and call it a vaccine. The word went out widely across the media and into the public consciousness — it’s not really worth bothering to get a vaccine, because it doesn’t work. The flu vaccine won’t actually protect you, because it’s not worth the bother. Maybe, on some level, people believed that getting the vaccine might endanger them, because people in the United States have very strange ideas about vaccines and how they work — surely, if one gets a flu vaccine during a bad flu year, that means you could get the flu from the vaccine, right? (No.)

For those who read beyond the headline, articles usually went into a little more detail on the nuance of the subject, discussing the fact that the vaccine is perfectly effective, it’s just not as broadly effective. But that required reading down, and really, who needs any information beyond what’s embedded in that short, quick-hit, descriptive headline? The flu vaccine doesn’t work, don’t bother to get it; that’s what the media effectively told the public in the United States by sneering repeatedly at the flu vaccine and not reporting on it more responsibly.

As these things tend to do, it spread like a determined and slow whisper across the landscape, too. Did you know that the flu vaccine doesn’t even work? I heard that getting vaccinated is pointless! And so forth. People told each other repeatedly that they shouldn’t bother getting vaccinated and the rumour spread like a virus itself, but it was one that was much more difficult to vaccinate against. You cannot titrate this in the lab, nor can you inoculate a population against a lack of understanding — because this is rooted in a lack of scientific literacy.

People don’t understand how the flu vaccine works, and they don’t understand why it’s important — and many seem to trust in the idea that other people will be vaccinated, so they won’t have to worry about it. The fact that we can’t collectively question scientifically dubious headlines is frustrating, but the media’s lack of interest in accurate science reporting is more so. Speaking as someone in the media, I understand the temptation of a short, attention-grabbing headline, especially online, where SEO is king. But sometimes, factual accuracy about critical information that could save lives is more important than hits.

Photo: Character Designs, Alberto Cerriteño, Flickr