BC backs off

A Nov 30th bulletin from the BC Health Sciences Association (HSA) reports that negotiations with the Ministry of Health re their new flu shot policy have resulted in withdrawal of the policy’s enforcement component. President, Reid Johnson informs: “When the policy was introduced in the fall, HSA immediately grieved the policy, which forced virtually anybody who works in health care to be immunized and make a public declaration they have been vaccinated; or wear surgical masks every day for the duration of the declared flu season.” Now, “If they choose not to be vaccinated for any number of factors – including experiences with bad side effects to vaccines, and fundamental, philosophical, or religious objections to vaccination – that is their right.” But, “During a flu outbreak, the long-standing policy of relocating staff, wearing protective masks, or staying at home will continue.”

According to its website, the HSA represents “more than 16,000 health care and social services professionals at over 250 facilities and agencies in acute care, long-term care, and community health, including workers at child development centres and transition houses.” Other unions involved in the negotiations were the Health Science Professionals Bargaining Association (HSPBA), the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), and the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU). The BC Nurses Union (BCNU) was also involved, but, in a spate of one-upmanship, HSA director, Brendan Shields, commented to ‘The Hook’ that the BC Nurses Union (BCNU) “was background noise and played little if no role in resolving these issues”.

According to CBC News, a BC Health Ministry spokesman (appropriately named Ryan Jabs) told them suspension of enforcement of the new regulation for flu shots or masks would only be temporary. “Health authorities will be taking a balanced and measured approach in the first year of this policy and will not be disciplining employees,” he said, noting that “health authorities will continue to work with labour groups to address concerns they may have in this transitional first year of implementation.”

On November 30th, the BCNU wrote about one of their concerns. In a news release titled ‘Nurses to Fraser Health: Come clean on drug company ties, funding for flu vaccine study’, they wrote, “Nurses want to know what money and benefits Fraser Health is accepting from a major flu vaccine manufacturer for a study on the effectiveness of one of its vaccines on the elderly.” They were referring to a study of Novartis Pharmaceuticals influenza vaccine sponsored by BC’s Fraser Health Authority and led by its chief MOH, Dr Paul Van Buynder – “a key figure driving the policy to force healthcare workers to take the flu vaccine or wear a mask.” The union noted that, “Novartis is supplying about 30 per cent of the flu vaccine being used in BC this year.” Digging deeper, they had discovered that in 2008, Van Buynder had led a major study of flu vaccines for children 6 mos-5yrs for Sanofi Pasteur. He’d also admitted connections to Merck, CSL, GSK and Pfizer. President, Debra McPherson, remarked: “When the evidence about the effectiveness of the shot is so thin, I’m concerned whether the people promoting this year’s coercive policy are entirely focused on the public interest.”

Van Buynder’s name was at the top of the list of eight BC health officials who’d signed a letter published in the Vancouver Sun on Nov 19th. The letter was titled ‘Flu vaccine protects the vulnerable’ and was written in response to a previous letter from none other than Dr Tom Jefferson of the renowned and independent Cochrane Collaboration. The health officials’ letter complained that a Cochrane review to which Jefferson had referred had “a very narrow outcome of interest.” They stated that, although the review failed to show a reduction in lab-confirmed influenza in residents of facilities where healthcare workers had received flu shots, “it did show these studies report a reduction in deaths from influenza-like illness, deaths from all causes, and GP consultation for influenza-like illness.” Hmmm…OK, conceivably a few GP consultations might be eliminated due to strongly held beliefs that flu shots actually work…but deaths from ILI (which includes infections from over 200 different viruses, only about 10% of which are influenza) and deaths from all causes?

Jefferson answered: “There are many studies in literature that conclude that vaccination of health care workers and healthy adults works well, but bias in these studies is so great that the vaccines appear to work against death for all causes, but not against death from respiratory infections. Following this perverted logic would have inactivated [ie killed virus] vaccines save lives from accidents, strokes, accidental poisoning, hypothermia and falls, but not from influenza and pneumonia? Either the inactivated vaccines are miracle workers or there is something very wrong with the evidence. Cochrane reviews weigh the evidence by its quality, not by their conclusions, to allow interpretation of the study results with some confidence” and, “The inactivated vaccines should work in theory, but real evidence suggests they are not having the desired effect. So far we have distortion of research findings, evidence-free statements and evidence-free policies supporting coercion of human beings. What next?”

University of Victoria drug policy analyst, Alan Cassels – who calls evidence-free flu shot statements and policies ‘eminence-based medicine’ – had corresponded with Jefferson to get information for his October Focus Magazine article. In it, Cassels wrote: “Jefferson believes that there is just too much money in, and reputations staked on, flu vaccines for many involved to be objective about them. He [Jefferson] wrote “The main proponents are decision makers who are riddled with conflicts of interest: they make policy, evaluate it, update it, commission research and sometimes carry out—and in extreme cases have a stake in—the production of the pharmaceuticals.” Cassels extrapolated, “The key thought here is stunning: The push from health departments around the world to annually vaccinate their populations against the flu are based on poor, incomplete, or wildly-spun evidence. Scientific bodies such as the Cochrane Collaboration that refuse to take money from the pharmaceutical industry produce reviews that challenge the grandiose pronouncements of public health authorities the world over. Unfortunately, the authorities that drive global policies around the influenza vaccine and antiviral drugs are ignoring those challengers.”

Those healthcare workers who’d been in anguish over the approaching Dec 1st mandate deadline – and even the nonchalant ones who nonetheless could still suffer flu shot vaccine injury – owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Tom Jefferson, the superhero in this drama, to Alan Cassels, assistant hero, to all those who wrote letters, commented and twittered in support, to all their unions which played a part – including the “background noise” BCNU which dug up the dirt that surely hastened the Health Ministry’s retreat, and even to usually-pro-vaccine CBC for its November ‘Flu deaths reality check’. Finally, VRAN should also be acknowledged for its replies to flu shot inquiries and ever-expanding Influenza Vaccine page. Since the back-off is said to be only “temporary”, healthcare workers will need to continue researching the issues. We hope they will make use of our material and help us continue supporting their needs by supporting ours; they can easily do so by making a donation here.