SWINE flu remains a serious illness, for all that its effects have not lived up to the doom-mongers’ worst predictions. Swine flu kills only a tiny number of those infected, but it does kill, as the recent death of a pregnant woman in the east of the country tragically proved.

Even so, it is striking that so many people are resisting calls to be vaccinated against H1N1. Less than half of those in “at risk” groups have taken up the offer to get the jab, according to a survey of GPs in Britain, while only 17 per cent of the traditionally hypochondriac French have announced their intention to do so. That is due partly to the fact that most French adults say they are not worried about the illness, and partly because of rumours and fears that have arisen around the vaccine. Germans are proving equally stubborn, despite their government’s insistence that the vaccine is necessary, while 77 per cent of people in Luxembourg have no plans to be vaccinated. Poland has decided against instigating a mass vaccination programme at all. The same scepticism about the vaccine is being shown by large numbers of people in every country.

Health officials may well tick them off for being irresponsible, but individuals still show an inconvenient habit of being able to think for themselves and not be browbeaten by the nagging and patronising “Nanny Knows Best” attitude of the medical establishment. That’s probably not so surprising either, when so many doctors surveyed in various countries themselves are saying no to the vaccine. Why should patients listen to doctors if many of them aren’t even heeding their own profession’s collectivist advice?

Between a third and 60 per cent of healthcare professionals in various UK studies say they intend to refuse the vaccine. Seven out of 10 of those were doing so because they thought the vaccine hadn’t been tested properly, with a similar proportion believing that swine flu had turned out to be so mild in the vast majority of cases that a universal vaccination programme was unnecessary — and whatever the HSE says, those two issues remain largely unresolved.

Swine flu has not developed to the expected extent, despite terrible individual tragedies, and estimates of the worst-case scenario have been repeatedly revised downwards. In Ireland, the true number of people infected is unknowable, since we are not testing samples from the thousands of cases which have been labelled as swine flu. There’s an automatic assumption now that anyone presenting with flu-like symptoms is another swine flu statistic. Maybe they are, but it can’t be known for certain.

Those behind the mass vaccination programme in this country have only our best interests at heart, but there’s no point meaning well if, the moment the slightest dissent is shown, a Resistance Is Futile mindset kicks in.

Free citizens are entitled to not be convinced by the available evidence without being accused either of hysteria, or of moral culpability should a more serious outbreak occur down the line.

Telling patients they should be reassured because the Government says the vaccine is safe and necessary is particularly fruitless, since distrust of authority lies at the heart of much of the concern expressed. Those fears may be unscientific, but haranguing those who hold contrary opinions does nothing to convince them that they are wrong; if anything, it merely confirms them in the belief that they are being bullied into doing as they’re told.

As one pregnant woman pointed out to the Times of London after an article urging readers to get the vaccine: “I don’t need to be reminded about the danger of swine flu. I’m already paranoid about it.” What she wanted was answers. The problem for the proponents of vaccination is that they can’t address the concerns honestly without admitting that the H1N1 vaccine has indeed been rushed through the licensing process — for noble reasons, yes, but there’s no denying that corners have been cut.

That’s why various manufacturers have been given immunity from the legal consequences should there be unforeseen problems down the line as a result of their products. The literature provided with doses of the vaccine also states explicitly that the effect of the medicine on certain groups is still unclear.

There are also plenty of researchers and neurosurgeons and doctors who have suspicions about the role of vaccinations in the growth of auto-immune disorders and other conditions. They can’t all be airily dismissed as cranks.

GPs certainly cannot answer such questions because they are not specialists in those fields. They only have the information provided to them by the Department of Health to go on.

It’s easy to paint everyone with concerns about vaccinations as an emotive crackpot, but don’t imagine a single person’s mind is changed as a result. Indeed, many might feel doubly irritated at getting lectures from a profession which hands out antibiotics like they’re Smarties, even for conditions on which antibiotics have zero effect — a culture which the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) only recently warned was creating new breeds of drug-resistant bacteria which already kill 25,000 people a year in Europe alone, and which could undermine vital medical treatments in future, including those for cancer.

The ECDPC is running an awareness campaign to urge doctors to stop over-subscribing antibiotics, but some doctors prefer the easy life, and give in to patients’ demands for unnecessary medicines.

And this is the profession which tells a small group of vaccine sceptics that they are being irresponsible? Physician, heal thyself.

As millions more people are vaccinated against swine flu, and the cases of debilitating side effects which have been reported remain sporadic, the medical establishment will claim another victory in the battle against disease, but that doesn’t mean it won the argument. In fact, in all the official messages from the medical establishment, it’s astonishing how few actual arguments have been made. Instead they’ve resorted to a series of fallacious rhetorical manoeuvres which could be deconstructed by any first-year philosophy student.

We’ve had Arguments From Authority and Arguments From Fear and blatant appeals to emotion. Most blatant of all has been the use of the fallacy of false dilemma, where the choice is presented as going along wholeheartedly with whatever vaccination programmes the government devises, or else being in favour of outbreaks of contagious, life-threatening diseases. They might as well put up posters with pictures of a kitten with a gun to its head and the legend: “Vaccinate your child now, or Tiddles gets it.”

However convinced one is by the efficacy and safety of the H1N1 vaccine, doctors should still respect the right of patients to say no. “Ultimately, having the vaccine is a personal choice,” as the UK’s department of health puts it — and hallelujah for that. Dictatorship by doctors and pharmacists is no more preferable than any other.

Sunday Independent

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