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Double Checking Sources: A Hallmark of Good Journalism

Story Highlights
  • The 2014-2015 influenza vaccine was relatively ineffective and the world is watching for news about just how effective the 2015-2016 flu vaccine is this season.
  • A recent media report that was rapidly picked up and repeated by other online media indicated that this year’s flu vaccine was no better than last year’s, but the report was based on old data.
  • With the proliferation of information on the Internet, it has become increasing important to be vigilant about checking data and sources before trusting and reporting it.

The evidence shows that the 2014-2015 influenza vaccine was an unmitigated failure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) itself admitted that last year there had been considerable “drift” in the influenza strain most commonly in circulation: The A (H3N2) type unexpectedly predominant had not been predicted by those who were deciding on which strains to include in the 2014-2015 annual flu vaccine and so that A type strain was not included.1 

The CDC has predicted that this year’s formula will more closely match the circulating strains, but the make-up of the vaccine is, at best, an educated guessing game, with decisions made long before flu season hits to give manufacturers time to produce and distribute enough of the vaccine to cover the world. We’re now watching carefully this season.

How will the 2015-2016 vaccine fare? Is it worth exposing ourselves and our children to the potential side effects of another vaccine that may not help very much?

An Early Report Suggests a Repeat Failure for 2016?

The blog Uncover California reported on November 16, 2015:

Experts from the United States Center for Disease Control has unveiled that the flu vaccine for this year is less effective than being predicted before. The vaccine has been found to be just 18% effective against the H3N2 dominant strain.

It has been found that the flu strain H3N2 that has been circulating was not factored into this season’s vaccine.2 

The story was immediately picked up by CBS Atlanta, which released a story the same day stating:

This season’s flu vaccine is not as effective against the virus as had been previously believed, reports the Uncover California.

Health experts had high hopes for this year’s vaccine because of changes to the recipe following last season’s disappointing success rate.3 

That’s where the staff of The Vaccine Reaction saw the report. CBS Atlanta seemed like a legitimate source of information, so we decided to look into it. After all, we want to let people know as soon as possible if it looks like this year’s vaccine is going to be as ineffective as was last year’s.

Checking first with the CDC’s most up-to-date influenza information, it was simple enough to confirm that the predominant type of flu seen so far this year is still the A (H3N2) strain of influenza. However, after that, the media coverage of the “facts” about this year’s influenza vaccine suddenly didn’t correspond with what the CDC was telling the public about this year’s influenza vaccine. While the two news stories released on November 16, 2015 claimed that this year’s seasonal flu vaccine does not include the predominant A (H3N2) strain seen so far this season, all of the CDC reports indicated that the A (H3N2) strain is, indeed, part of the 2015-2016 vaccine cocktail:

All of the 2015-2016 influenza vaccine is made to protect against the following three viruses:
• an A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus
• an A/Switzerland/9715293/2013 (H3N2)-like virus
• a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus. (This is a B/Yamagata lineage virus)4 

That same CDC source states:

Three kinds of flu viruses commonly circulate among people today: influenza A (H1N1) viruses, influenza A (H3N2) viruses, and influenza B viruses.

Global laboratory data as of September 21, 2015 continues to indicate that most circulating influenza viruses are still antigenically similar to the reference vaccine viruses used for developing the 2015-2016 U.S. vaccines. (No significant antigenic drift has been reported in currently circulating viruses at this time, as occurred last season.)4 

Tracing the Roots of Inaccuracy

Going back to read the original media blog report to check the accuracy of source material, it turned out to read as follows:

… the decision was already taken in February 2014. But experts affirmed that the new strain of H3N2 was seen for the first time in March 2014 and has become dominant one in September 2014. By that time, it had become too late to be included in the new vaccine.2 

Although this blog post was only recently published (and was referenced on that same day by the CBS Atlanta report), those 2014 dates refer to the decisions made for the disastrous 2014-2015 vaccine formulation. The composition of the 2015-2016 vaccine was only decided at the World Health Organization (WHO) Vaccine Composition Meeting held on February 23-25, 2015.5 

It’s not difficult to get such a thing wrong, especially since the flu vaccine is almost never as effective as public health officials hope it will be during any given flu season.

Credible Sounding Sources Still Depend on Critical Thinking

Ease of research and the ready availability of vast oceans of information are wonderful aspects of the Internet age. Unfortunately, the benefits of being able to quickly find dozens, if not thousands, of references to nearly anything we can think of can easily backfire if we are at all casual about which resources we use and do not check the accuracy of those references.

One of the best examples is the notorious “Chocolate Diet Sting,” in which journalist John Bohannon and documentary filmmakers Peter Onneken and Diana Löbl set out to expose what they refer to as the “junk-science diet industry,” by showing how easy it is to proliferate diet crazes by making them appear to have science-based health benefits.

With a small amount of money and a legitimate doctor and statistician on the team, the “researchers” carried out a very tiny study using real people, then massaged the data to “prove” that eating chocolate every day can not only help people lose weight but also will lower cholesterol levels and improve overall well-being. The fake study was accepted and published by the International Archives of Medicine and ultimately was picked up by such popular publications as Shape Magazine, Germany’s daily tabloid paper Bild, and a host of others.6 

A Promise to Our Readers

The writers on the editorial team of The Vaccine Reaction are committed to doing everything we can to confirm the accuracy of the facts we publish in news analyses and OpEds, which is why we use original sources for the majority of the information we reference. We cannot guarantee that we will never “get it wrong,” but we can guarantee that we do our best to check the accuracy of the information we provide.

To that end, it is safe to say that, historically, the influenza vaccine has not been the panacea that public health officials have made it out to be. The jury is still out on the true effectiveness of this season’s flu shot formula.


2 Responses to Double Checking Sources: A Hallmark of Good Journalism

  1. About flu symptoms Reply

    December 7, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Accordíng to the number of vírus straín protectíon there are trívalent and quadrívalent shots. The trívalent vaccíne protects from two type (A) flu straín H1N1, H3N2 and one (B) type flu straín. As for the quadrívalent ít ís coveríng the same straíns as the trívalent and addíng addítíonal one from the (B) vírus type straín.

  2. Hosting Reply

    October 15, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Our aim is to promote accurate, evidence-based reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community.

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