Report of doctor who failed to get the flu vaccine doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

I saw this story yesterday on the BBC’s website. It concerns a consultant chest physician, Dr Peter Hockey, who gives himself a slap on the wrist for not getting a flu jab. He ended up being hospitalised and couldn’t work for five months. He’s kicking himself for contracting a condition which he describes in the piece as “completely preventable”. His chagrin also relates to the fact that he infected a pregnant colleague of his – Dr Rachel Anderson – who thankfully went on to have a healthy baby. She is quoted as saying: “I was really lucky. When I found out I had swine flu I was given Tamiflu [an antiviral flu drug] straight away.”

On the face of it the message shouted loudly from this piece is this that we should all get our flu jabs and thank heavens for Tamiflu. One slight oddity about this article is that we are told that Dr Anderson was infected with swine flu, but there’s no mention of Dr Hockey ever having swine flu himself. Of course this may be down to reporting error.

More importantly though, let’s see what research, rather than rhetoric, tells us about the wonders of flu vaccination and Tamiflu (oseltamivir).

Well, if you were reading this site a couple of weeks back you’ll know already that flu vaccination doesn’t work as well as some would have us believe. http://www.drbriffa.com/2011/10/27/roll-up-for-the-flu-vaccine-i-think-not/

If when Dr Hockey refers to flu as ‘completely preventable’ he’s suggesting that the vaccination provides 100 per cent immunity then he’s very wide of the mark here. I know we doctors sometimes like to give the impression (and perhaps believe) that immunisation gives blanket protection, but it doesn’t.

And what of the Tamiflu Dr Anderson was ‘lucky’ to receive in such a timely manner? The effectiveness of this drug was reviewed in the British Medical Journal in 2009 [1]. One of findings of this study is that Tamiflu reduces the duration of flu symptoms by about a day. The authors describe this as a ‘modest benefit’.

Another outcome assessed by this review related to the complications of flu including chest infection. The best data available to the authors showed “… no benefit for oseltamivir against complications.” In other words, there really is not good evidence that Tamiflu reduces the risk of complications.

The authors did concede, too, that data on the potential toxicity of Tamiflu was inadequate, commenting that the available evidence: “… could not answer concerns about the toxicity of neuraminidase inhibitors, especially oseltamivir. Governments should set up studies to monitor the safety of neuraminidase inhibitors.”

Let’s strip away the rhetoric from the piece I link to above and make an assessment based on actual research.

One doctor tells us that flu is completely preventable but it isn’t as far as vaccination is concerned (far from it). The other tells us how lucky she was to get Tamiflu though this drug has modest benefit, does not prevent complications of flu and has unknown toxicity. These facts, of course, have been completely lost in a piece which trumpets the supposed benefits of flu vaccination and Tamiflu but only tells us one side of the story.

References:

1. Jefferson T, et al. Neuraminidase inhibitors for preventing and treating influenza in healthy adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2009;339:b5106

12 Responses to Report of doctor who failed to get the flu vaccine doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

  1. Chris 9 November 2011 at 1:36 am #

    The copy in the article strikes me as being a bit stilted – (anyone agree?) – it does read a bit like an advertorial. And it goes on to provide some stats about uptake of free jabs and death rates involving pregnant women. Being pregnant is one of the criteria for eligibility for the free jab we’re explicitly informed.

    I derive some amusement from being assured of Dr Peter Hockeys’ confidence he was responsible for infecting his pregnant female colleague when he and his colleague work in an environment that would include close quarter contact with many other potential sources of a communicable disease.

    It’s as if the two doctors are being presented as case studies. The self-chastisement aspect is quickly converted into an awareness exercise that looks designed to increase take-up of flu jabs offered for ‘free at the point of service’ for eligible groups. The report is not serving the apparent story so much as it may appear to serve an agenda. I did wonder if the named doctors were about as ‘real’ as one ‘Ms Chris Jones’, John.

    The publicly available online search feature of the GMC register of practitioners reveals reassuringly there is a ‘Dr Peter Morey Hockey’ registered who attained registration at about the right time, but the information provided is not enough to be certain of a match. And there are four ‘Dr Rachel Andersons’, one of which might match, but again this is not established with any certainty.

    I think this is an instance of ‘churnalism’ where a press release has been crudely re-presented and knocked into a report by a junior and uninformed reporter. Furthermore, there are grounds to suspect the press release was prepared with an agenda, and not so much ‘the story’, foremost in mind. Dr Hockey might be confusing efficacy with certainty, but my money is placed upon the probability that his apparent words were refined or crafted by someone else with an interest in the sales of flu vaccines. Times are hard, had you heard?

  2. Lori 9 November 2011 at 6:10 am #

    “I thought it was something for patients, not clinicians and was completely ignorant to the fact I was putting my life and my patients’ lives at risk.”

    He’s a doctor and didn’t know that people die of the flu?

    I had the flu when I was 17, and it’s the sickest I ever was in my life. If I remember right, the doctor said it was a strain that the last vaccine didn’t cover. A shot wouldn’t have done me any good.

  3. Chris 10 November 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    There is indeed a consultant chest physician named Dr Peter Hockey at the hospital; at least something about the report can be established as ‘fact’. Some reason to back-pedal, but only a little.

  4. Karen 11 November 2011 at 11:31 am #

    A few of my friends get flu vaccinations & they get sick, I don’t.
    The doctor recommended my father who was having chemo have a shot. I feel his immune system was subjected to too many battles.
    The number of deaths from bird flu pandemic was about the regular amount from flu. Tamiflu sure knows how to push their product.

  5. Feona 11 November 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Looks like this story was deliberately placed to promote Tamiflu and flu jabs. I’d love to know the real source.

  6. stella 11 November 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    When will these people realise that they are not God, a virus mutates constantly so any ‘immunisation’ is useless against that. Who paid this doc. for his story??? Big Pharma???

  7. Doreen 11 November 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    The Dr. Hockey referred to does exist and has treated me.

  8. Mark Struthers 11 November 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    @stella

    “Who paid this doc. for his story??? Big Pharma???”

    I’ll bet Big Pharma’s agent on earth – the Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health – played a big part in this scam.

  9. helen 13 November 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    And yet another example of a paid advertisement/infomercial masquerading itself as a news item…………..shame media, shame!!!

  10. C Marlow 14 November 2011 at 9:58 am #

    If the pregnant doctor had had the flu jab as advised by doctors for pregnant women and that it is so reliable how come she contracted it?!

  11. Flora 18 November 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I’m not sure it is the dead hand of Big Pharma, more like lazy, sloppy journalism or a piece placed by the local NHS to get people to sign up for the flu jab. Whatever it is, its a very misleading article when most people will equate ‘flu jab’ with the one now being offered in all doctors’ surgeries. But the article appears to be about the swine flu jab – totally different. Unfortunately, the piece does not distinguish between the swine flu jab and the usual annual flu jab.

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  1. One way to prevent flu is to catch flu | Dr Briffa's Blog - A Good Look at Good Health - 24 November 2011

    [...] recently I wrote about an example of how flu vaccination can be reported in a way which puts it in a very positive light and perhaps [...]

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