One of the most widely-covered medical dilemmas in the past 5 years is the safety of vaccines. The surge in concern began with the 1998 publication of a study that suggested a possible link between vaccinations and the development of autism. The study spurred a vocal movement of parents that have chosen to not vaccinate their children. Since then, a consistent wave of media coverage surrounding both the movement and its supposed body of “proof” has propagated throughout the country. The media has been critiqued heavily throughout this surge for misrepresenting the results of certain studies and creating biases against vaccines that many biologists believe to be unfounded.
In early September, the journal Vaccine published a study that theorized a potential causal link between the receipt of a flu vaccine following a previous year’s pH1N1 vaccine and miscarriage in the first trimester of pregnancy. This data was quantified using a statistical tool known as an odds ratio, which estimates the likelihood that a particular outcome will occur in association with a particular exposure, compared to the likelihood of that outcome in the absence of the exposure. The only significant difference in the odds was among women who received the H1N1 vaccine in the season before a new flu vaccine. The authors of the study emphasize that the data are inconclusive and do not in any way establish a connection between miscarriage and the flu vaccine. They nonetheless suggest further study on this topic and the overall safety of vaccines as a whole. As they state in the conclusion, “This study does not and cannot establish a causal relationship between repeated influenza vaccination and SAB, but further research is warranted” (1).
Immediately following the release of the study, many of the United States’ major news outlets published reports of their own under headlines like NBC’s “Study linking early miscarriage to flu vaccine puzzles doctors.” While all of the articles note the lack of a definite link and caution women against jumping to conclusions about flu vaccinations during pregnancy, they employ a tone that is far less tentative than that of the authors of the study. As the leader of the study remarked, “There’s no biological basis for this phenomenon, so the study represents something that wasn’t expected.” However, NBC describes the results early in the article as “a troubling signal.” Experts still encourage pregnant women to obtain flu vaccines for this coming season, citing that a severe flu might also cause miscarriage (2).
In a world where most people obtain their up-to-date scientific information from news outlets and word-of-mouth, it is probable that the words “puzzling” and “study linking” will promote distrust of the flu vaccine and potentially doctors at large. This is especially concerning when the medical community itself establishes no definitive link. Experts note that because the study was funded by the CDC, it is further proof that the government is not trying to cover up any potential issues and is instead doing all that they can to make sure that vaccines are safe (3). As the anti-vaccine movement is somewhat based on distrust of government, this may pacify any protesters that see this study as yet more proof that vaccines are more dangerous than originally thought. Even so, it is important that the public be aware of potential misrepresentations of scientific studies in the media.
- Donahue, Kieke, King, et. all “Association of spontaneous abortion with receipt of inactivated influenza vaccine containing H1N1pdm09 in 2010–11 and 2011–12,” Vaccine 20 September 2017 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264410X17308666
- Fox, Maggie, “Study linking early miscarriage to flu vaccine puzzles doctors,” 13 September 2017, Today News https://www.today.com/health/does-flu-vaccine-have-link-early-miscarriage-t116256
- Sun, Lena “What to know about a study of flu vaccine and miscarriage” 13 September 2017, Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/09/13/researchers-find-hint-of-a-link-between-flu-vaccine-and-miscarriage/?utm_term=.ba8eb39118a5