Monday, May 30, 2005

Meningitis (Marketing) can Strike out of the Blue

So, I’m thinking it may be fun and worthwhile to focus this blog simply on deconstructing CNN health stories…it may be too narrow a focus, but given the crap I regularly read from that news source, I’d never be without something to write about.

The CNN propaganda that informs today’s blog focuses on a new meningitis vaccine.
(Poor Leslie, the anecdotal focus of the news story, contracted meningitis at 8-years old and has been left with scars on her shoulders and knees. She urges everyone to get the new meningitis vaccine.)

Where to start? Back in 1983. That was the year that I contracted meningococcal meningitis. I spent about a week in hospital. Spinal tap. Whole deal. My case falls into the classic high risk formula in that I was living in a dorm at the time. None of the other girls I bunked with (four to a room) or I shared a floor with (about forty 16- and 17-year olds) got sick.

Maybe the health or hospital care in England in 1983 was better than it is in the USA today…maybe my infection was not as bad as the cases I read about in the paper…maybe I started out healthier than the kids who have permanent damage or die from meningitis…or maybe I was just lucky. I don’t expect we’ll ever know.

But it is my own anecdotal experience with meningococcal meningitis that informs my skepticism about this new vaccine. It’s so easy to parade out the worst-case scenario to make a point about the horrors of a disease and the miracle that is the new cure.

So, back to my fave health news source and the article in question. How dangerous is this disease? CNN reports:

Although meningococcal meningitis affects only about 3,000 people nationwide each year, it kills a fifth of adolescents who get it.

“Nationwide” refers to the USA, of course. Population of the USA these days is just shy of 300 million. So in the whole population of the USA, about 1 in every 100,000 people will contract meningococcal meningitis each year. Not very high risks, really.

But wait, it kills a fifth of adolescents who get it. That’s 20 percent. But not 20 percent of 3,000 (which would be 600 adolescents a year) since the 3,000 is the total number of cases of ALL Americans, no matter how old they are.

Why aren’t we told the death stats for that full 3,000 people who contract meningitis? Do adults or babies who have the infection fare better, worse or the same as adolescents? Why is CNN using this wonky, potentially misleading math?

Probably because the goal of the story is to generate support for vaccinating 8 million US kids with this new vaccine – “11- to 12-year-olds, students entering high school and college freshmen headed for dorm life.”

Perhaps the best question is, "how many kids from the target population for this new vaccine contract this form of meningitis each year?"

The meningococcal meningitis vaccine just received FDA approval in January this year, which means that the marketing of the vaccine (including selling fear about the disease) is just getting started.

Watch for more scare-mongering in the months to come – when news in August is slow and “back-to-school” stories start to fill the pages, I'll bet we see lots of articles calling for the target populations of students to get their meningitis shots.

My call to parents is simply this: Ask your doctor the following question:

What are the potential side effects of the meningococcal meningitis vaccine?

Like all vaccines, it will not be benign. The drug-maker will have recorded adverse reactions while the vaccine was being tested. Find out what those reactions were and how prevalent they were. Find out if any groups of kids fared worse than others (medical background, cultural background, income level).

If your doctor can’t answer you, ask to see the product monograph before allowing your child to roll up his or her sleeve. It’s called, “Informed Consent” and in neither Canada nor the US is it very well-understood or practiced when it comes to the sacred culture of vaccines.


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