Flu Vaccine Study Prompts Caution In Canada

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Canadian provincial authorities are rethinking flu shots because of data that link getting a seasonal flu shot to an increased risk of contracting a mild case of swine flu. Helen Branswell, medical reporter for the Canadian Press, says though not many people have seen the data, the numbers have become a part of the discussion in the public health community.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As public health departments in this country and many other countries prepare for the flu season, they must now cope with what's being called the Canadian problem. There's evidently a study somewhere in Canada that links getting a seasonal flu shot to an increased risk of contracting swine flu, albeit a mild case. Very few people have actually seen the data, but various Canadian provincial authorities are rethinking flu shots because of it and some have actually gone beyond rethinking.

Helen Branswell, who was medical reporter for The Canadian Press, the wire service, has written about this and she joins us now from Toronto. First, Helen Branswell, what is this study that we're talking about?

Ms. HELEN BRANSWELL (Medical Reporter, Canadian Press): Well, it's almost a phantom. It's hanging out there, but as you mentioned, no one's seen it. A group from British Columbia, the British Columbia Centers for Disease Control looked at some vaccine efficacy databases that they had earlier in the year. And seemed to see - there was a higher rate of swine flu cases in people who had had a seasonal flu shot last fall than there were in people who hadn't had a seasonal flu shot last fall. So that started an investigation.

They looked at, I believe, another database. And when they continued to see this association, they asked partners in Quebec and then later Ontario to search their databases to see if this was also showing up elsewhere. And the report is that this association, which no one can really explain, is seen in the databases from British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario.

SIEGEL: But it's not as though someone has now gone and published this and said, here's our finding.

Ms. BRANSWELL: Whether it's going to get published or not isn't clear until a journal decides to take it. But it has been submitted as far as I know. Yes.

SIEGEL: And whatever its position in the publication pipeline, decisions have been made on the basis of this report in Canada.

Mr. BRANSWELL: Yeah. Not very many people have seen it, but a lot of people in public health know about it and it became part of the discussion as the provinces and territorial governments in Canada were trying to figure out what to do with seasonal flu vaccine and pandemic flu vaccine delivery programs for this fall.

SIEGEL: So, what is the status right now of flu shots across Canada?

Mr. BRANSWELL: Well, we have 10 provinces and three territories and most of them have announced that they're going to be giving seasonal flu vaccine in October to people 65 and older and residents of long term care facilities. These are people who aren't at high risk of contracting H1N1, but are at high risk of seasonal flu, a bad sickness if they get seasonal flu. So they're going to give them the seasonal flu shots. But the rest of the population is being told they can't get a seasonal flu shot in the fall.

Then, in November, when our pandemic vaccine is available, they're going to vaccinate anyone who wants the pandemic vaccine then. And in January or early next year, if the studies are disproven or if it seems safe at that point to give the seasonal shots, they'll resume offering them to other people.

SIEGEL: Is it a fair criticism here to say that whatever the actual content of this British-Colombian study, word of it seems to have spread with all the scrutiny and peer review of a game of telephone?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRANSWELL: It's a very unusual situation for an unpublished study to be influencing public policy in this way, especially as many other people who are making the decisions may not have actually seen the data.

SIEGEL: Have you heard anyone offer an immunological argument as to why getting a seasonal flu shot might in any way enhance anyone's risk of contracting swine flu?

Ms. BRANSWELL: No, no. People can't seem to come up with a reason why this would make sense. That's part of the reason I think that these results are not affecting policy at this point outside of Canada. I think people don't - can't figure out why it would be true. So, in the absence of a good biological explanation and in the absence of seeing the same effect in other data sets elsewhere, I think there's a reluctance to buy into this.

SIEGEL: Well, Helen Branswell, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Ms. BRANSWELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Helen Branswell is medical reporter for the Canadian Press and she spoke to us from Toronto.

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