As people get the H1N1 vaccine, there will inevitably be cases of seizures, heart attacks, strokes and miscarriages -- all unrelated to the vaccine itself. Centers for Disease Control media relations director Glen Nowak says his agency is reminding reporters about the difference between correlation and causation.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. The H1N1 vaccine launched nationally on Monday, and in much of the media it was covered like the arrival of the Marines, or the new iPhone, or the Beatles.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We are tracking H1N1 at FOX News —
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: With 250 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine —
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It is here. The first batch of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine has arrived in the city.
BOB GARFIELD: But media wouldn't be media without putting on their low concerned voices to float the sinister “what ifs.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Some medical industry insiders are raising questions about the vaccine’s safety, so is there a cause for concern?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: All right, now, what do you think of the vaccination?
MAN: I have more concern about the vaccine than I do about the swine flu.
BOB GARFIELD: HBO’s Bill Maher gave his two cents when he told his 60,000 Twitter followers they'd be idiots to get the vaccine. Comedian, virologist and [LAUGHS] epidemiologist. What a guy. But even if popular fears of widespread lethal side effects are unsupported by science, the fears themselves are very real. A Consumer Reports poll reported that only 34 percent of those polled said they were definitely planning to get the vaccine. Glen Nowak is director of media relations at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says they want to get the media onboard to help the CDC fight the misconceptions about the vaccine. Glen, welcome to OTM.
GLEN NOWAK: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I picked on Bill Maher because I thought his tweet was particularly irresponsible, but I daresay there have been much larger audiences for similar messages. Is there any medium or any individual article or broadcast that has been most destructive so far?
GLEN NOWAK: Not one that I would single out. It’s more along the lines that the media are very obsessed with numbers, and very early on they wanted to know how many people were infected, how many people were hospitalized, how many people died. And it’s really hard to come up with the accurate estimates of the number of people who may have been infected with flu. It’s not necessary in the vast, vast majority of cases for people to have a test that could indicate whether they actually had flu and, and what particular strain they had. It’s been very challenging in terms of communicating that to the media.
BOB GARFIELD: So what does the CDC do to make sure people are getting the straight dope?
GLEN NOWAK: Well, I think we're trying to give people the best information possible so that they can make informed decisions, and that includes providing them with information about what are the benefits of vaccination, what are the risks or potential risks associated with vaccination. And, in fact, you know, those risks are relatively small, and when it comes to severe outcomes they're very, very rare. And I think the other thing we've been trying to tell people is that, you know, a decision not to get vaccinated isn't a risk-free decision. It’s, it’s a decision to take on a different set of risks.
BOB GARFIELD: So, as we were speaking, I Googled “swine flu vaccine.” I didn't do “H1N1,” I just did “swine flu vaccine” and the very first result has the following sentence. “Dr. Hicks is concerned about the chemicals that get injected into children when they are given a vaccine.” Is there anything the CDC can do to combat the misinformation?
GLEN NOWAK: One of the things that we do is if you go to the CDC website you will find user-friendly information that tells you what is in vaccines, what are the ingredients, why are those ingredients there. The reality is, is that there’s millions of blogs out there, millions of websites, and if we undertook efforts to take them on, so to speak, we probably would be giving them more credibility and probably increasing the visibility of the messages that we don't believe are true, in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD: At some point, someone’s going to die shortly after having been vaccinated with the H1N1 vaccine and that will be reported and conclusions will be jumped to. It’s my understanding that CDC is trying actually to inoculate itself [LAUGHS] by giving the media context in advance so they will understand not to overreact and to mistake correlation with causation.
GLEN NOWAK: There has been much discussion internally as to how much do you foreshadow and when do you foreshadow specific information. When we talked to some reporters who are interested specifically in vaccine safety and we said that we know that in the course of a typical week in this country this many people experience a miscarriage, this many people have a heart attack, some of those reporters, the first question out of their mouth was, why are you telling me this. There’s a concern that when you start talking about those things, are you planting ideas in people’s minds, and so are they going to be more likely to believe that the vaccine was associated with those events? We've tried to be transparent throughout, and I think we've decided that we need to provide as much of that information up front. But we also are mindful of the opposite point of view, which is that by putting that information out there you can create more problems than you solve.
BOB GARFIELD: Glen, I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
GLEN NOWAK: You’re very welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Glen Nowak is director of media relations for the Centers for Disease Control.
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