Post-2003 Flu Vaccinations: Conspiracy or Genuine Concern?

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Have you seen this image going around social media networks? The picture depicts influenza deaths in children under five decreasing between 1999 and 2002, and skyrocketing in 2003 when the flu vaccine was recommended for babies six months and older. Image by Decoded Science.

Have you seen this image going around social media networks? The picture depicts influenza deaths in children under five decreasing between 1999 and 2002, and skyrocketing in 2003 when the flu vaccine was recommended for babies six months and older. Image by Decoded Science.

Have you seen this image going around on social media networks? Wondering if it is true?

According to this meme, influenza deaths in children under five years of age went down between 1999 and 2002, but then shot up in 2003 when the CDC started recommending the flu vaccine for babies six months and older.

So is it true? Decoded Science has investigated the controversy, to see what’s behind the meme.

Flu Death Statistics: What the CDC Reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps track of statistics for each influenza season. This graph shows numbers for one year, when actually, the influenza season begins in October of one year and carries into June of the following year.

Initially, the CDC reported influenza deaths as an estimated percentage. During the 2003-2004 influenza season, however, the CDC began requesting that doctors report death in children younger than 18 years old who had tested positive for the flu. As of May 31, 2004, doctors reported 152 pediatric deaths in the United States.

This change allows for a more accurate and detailed reporting system where we can begin to compare actual numbers instead of estimated percentages.

Change in Flu Vaccine Recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in 2001 recommended that children ages six months and older who have chronic pulmonary disease, asthma, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, diabetes, blood disorders, or those with any illness or disease that can compromise a person’s immune system, should receive the influenza vaccination. By 2002 the recommendations expanded to all children ages six months and older; even healthy children can have serious and sometimes fatal complications from the flu.

Flu Vaccine Deaths: An Expert’s Opinion

Decoded Science had the opportunity to talk with an epidemiologist in the state of Kentucky and show her this graph that’s been making its way around various social media websites. The epidemiologist told Decoded Science when she saw the graph,

This is a classic example of a person using data to try to prove a point but not having experience with data. Around 2001, the CDC did recommend more children under the age of 7 be vaccinated against the flu. The issue with this graph is that it uses raw data rather than a rate per population as it should be which would cause the numbers to look as if they are increased.

Also in 2003, the CDC changed flu surveillance guidelines which as a result enhanced the way that flu is monitored therefore giving the appearance that there was an increase in the number of deaths when the number actually stayed around the same. Around then is when they implemented sentinel surveillance where there are actually pediatric offices that report flu cases and such on children rather than the CDC estimating rates as they previously had.  

The person here implies that the graph is showing that children are dying from getting a flu shot, but in actuality the graph is showing the number of children dying from flu in general (which has nothing to do with the shot).  If they wanted to show children dying as a result of flu vaccines, then the best source would be VAERS data which would show the true numbers in relation to the vaccine.”

Interpreting CDC Data: Not Everyone’s An Expert

Knowing how to read and interpret graphs is vitally important before making any assumptions or drawing any conclusions and especially important before making a graph and sharing it on social media websites. Although there are side effects, and some dispute the flu shot’s effectiveness, the influenza vaccine isn’t responsible for a vast increase in pediatric deaths as shown in the meme – it’s just a misrepresentation of data.

Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2003-2004 U.S.Influenza Season Summary. (2004). Accessed November 27, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). (2013). Accessed November 27, 2013.

Food and Drug Administration. Influenza Virus Vaccine for the 200-2001 Season. (2001). Accessed November 27, 2013.

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