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Something Rotten In The State Of Research - The Twisted Tale Of Pneumonia Vaccine For Adults

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In an earlier column, I promised that, although I didn't agree with one argument typically used against the notion that vaccines are effective, there was plenty that could said about it, and that more would follow.

Recent headlines provided a humdinger of an opportunity: "Pneumonia Vaccine Doesn't Work for Elderly" and "Vaccine insufficient for elderly, study says".

Excuse me?  Isn't that kind of basic?  Shouldn't that have all been worked out before licensing the vaccine, let alone recommending administering it to any, moreover, so many adults?

Just how many have received what now appears to be a basically useless vaccine for them?

And how have the "experts" responded to this little problem?  By recommending that the vaccine continue to be administered to adults 65 and older!  Why?  Because it seems to work just fine for a "small group", those few for whom the bacteria becomes a blood infection, which amounts to around 60 of every 100,000 of the elderly who get pneumococcal pneumonia.  (One teeny, tiny little caveat, though -  it only works half the time for this "small group".)

And how many people aged 65 or older allegedly get pneumococcal pneumonia, the disease the vaccine is targeted at?  "Each year, about one-third to one-half of the 350,000 to 620,000 U.S. patients age 65 and older hospitalized with pneumonia have a type called pneumococcal pneumonia."  That comes to around 115,000 to 310,000 potential pneumococcal pneumonia cases.  At most the vaccine would then be expected to prevent the blood infection in around 90 of the elderly, around 15-20% of whom might have been expected to die from the blood infection. 

The vaccine, in other words, could be expected to prevent, at most, 19 elderly deaths each year.

In a statement almost breathtaking in its lack of substance, Dr. Lisa Jackson, "principal investigator" for the New England Journal of Medicine study, demurely noted: "Vaccine research tends to focus on children, and that's important, but we need to expand and look for a (pneumonia) vaccine for older adults as well."

Pardon me, but what's that supposed to mean?  While "vaccine research" does tend to so focus, her statement belies the fact that there already is a pneumonia vaccine used for adults. 

More importantly,  wasn't that vaccine, which has been and continues to be recommended for adults, supposed to be safe and effective for them? 

Did they or did they not test this vaccine on adults?  If they did not, why were adults given it in the first place? If they did test it on adults, what does this say about the quality and state of vaccine research?

While the poor record of the current vaccine may lead some to argue in favor of ANOTHER pneumonia vaccine for adults, a so-called "new and improved version",  given Public Health's track-record on the current vaccine, why should we assume it will be any better?


As is the case with so many of these vaccines, one can't help but wonder just who it is that benefits from widespread adult use of this vaccine, other than the vaccine manufacturers and those with financial ties to them.  In this age of minimal liability for vaccine manufacturers, amid the seemingly endless push for additional vaccines, can anything ever be done to hold them accountable? And given the almost desperate nature of that push, will there ever be the resolve to do so?

Sandy Gottstein   

Date: 5-23-2003

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." - Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), paraphrasing John Philpot Curran (1808)