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Misinformation based on one-time 1976 tragedy add to swine flu vaccine confusion

Public health officials making the pitch for the H1N1 vaccine to a wary public are having to overcome an unprecedented torrent of misinformation.

PolitiFact looked into several of the claims making the rounds in chain e-mails and from political talk show hosts.

And therein lies the problem, some health officials say: The issue has somehow become political.

At the start of a program dedicated to the H1N1 virus, radio and TV personality Glenn Beck put it succinctly: "Will you take the vaccine and give it to your children? How much do you trust your government? I think that's the main question."

Beck raised a popular concern on his Oct. 8 radio show when he said, "You don't know if this (H1N1 vaccine) is going to cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s."

Beck is referring here to a huge effort to immunize Americans after a 1976 swine flu outbreak at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The flu never went beyond Fort Dix, and the immunization program was halted. But among the 45 million who received the vaccine, more than 500 people got a rare neurological illness called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Two dozen people died from it. A medical panel convened in 2003 by the Institute for Medicine concluded "the evidence favored acceptance of a causal relationship" between the vaccine and Guillain-Barré in adults.

But the panel also found that in nearly 30 years of using the seasonal flu vaccine since then, there was no proof that the vaccines had caused any more cases of Guillain-Barré or any other neurological diseases.

The government has conducted clinical trials on more than 4,000 people who got the H1N1 vaccine this year, and the only side effects so far amount to little more than sore arms and stuffy noses. That's too small a sample to rule out a connection to Guillain-Barré, but the H1N1 vaccine was made essentially the same way seasonal flu vaccines have been made for more than 20 years, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Those seasonal flu vaccines have been given to hundreds of millions of people a year worldwide without any provable links to neurological problems, he said.

For failing to adequately balance the track record of the seasonal flu vaccine over more than two decades with that one year in 1976, we gave Beck a Barely True rating.

PolitiFact was less generous with a bogus claim from a chain e-mail that an Iowa policy "provides for a state roundup of Iowa citizens who might be exposed to the swine flu virus." Some bloggers likened it to concentration camps for people with H1N1.

In the spring, when H1N1 was feared to be a much more deadly threat, Iowa officials did create a template in the event they would need to quarantine some people. But when H1N1 proved only as potent as the average seasonal flu, the plan was scrapped. No states are considering quarantining people with H1N1.

"Given that the virus is already widespread in the United States and worldwide and is presenting the same sort of disease we see with regular seasonal flu, CDC does not intend to issue quarantine or isolation orders for 2009 H1N1 flu at this time," said Christine Pearson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In short, no mandatory vaccines; no quarantines.

We ruled the e-mail claim False.

Misinformation based on one-time 1976 tragedy add to swine flu vaccine confusion 10/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 10:33pm]
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