Saturday, February 20, 2016

Time to End Expensive, Ineffective Forced Flu Shots

The flu shot - ineffective, expensive and mandatory in BC for health workers unless they use a mask
And stop associated fear-based campaigns that benefit pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday January 19, 2016

By Bill Tieleman

"Why are we vaccinating so many people in whom we have no proof that it works?"

After the repeatedly failed effectiveness of flu shots, it's time to rein in their expensive use, end mandatory flu shots or use of masks for B.C. health workers and end the fear campaign that benefits pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The facts are that flu shots are remarkably ineffective -- just seven per cent protection last flu season; that influenza deaths are exaggerated; and that forcing doctors, nurses and health care workers to either have the flu shot or wear a mask up to 16 hours a day is counterproductive and creates a false sense of security for patients.

And to be clear -- none of this is remotely in the Jenny McCarthy anti-vaccine conspiracy theory category -- it's based on publicly available scientific research and government statistics.

Gambling with millions

First -- flu shots are a stunningly poor but expensive way to prevent the illness.

Each year is a multi-million-dollar gamble with high odds against correctly guessing which strain will be dominant the following flu season.

And last year's flu shot was a nearly complete bust.

"I would say overall it's signalling no protection," flu expert Dr. Danuta Skowronski from the BC Centre for Disease Control said in January 2015 following release of a Canadian study on the 2014-15 flu shot's lack of effectiveness.

"So probably the most important message to get out now is for high-risk individuals not to count on vaccine to have protected them this season," Skowronski added. "Other backup options should come to the fore because the vaccine protection is so disappointing this year."

The effectiveness of this season's vaccine hasn't been fully measured and fortunately reported flu cases are very low so far.

But it has only reached over 50 per cent once in the past 10 years and last year dropped to a lowest-ever seven per cent.

Would you buy a car or a television that had a 50 per cent chance of working at best and at worst only seven per cent? Not likely, but that isn't stopping the flu shot industry.

Pharmacies are constantly promoting flu shots throughout the winter -- at your expense unless you are in the most vulnerable categories -- which means government pays.

Forced shot 'coercive tool': arbitrator

Fortunately, some common sense has been injected -- by an Ontario arbitrator's decision last year striking down mandatory flu shots or use of masks for health workers in Sault Ste. Marie -- with implications across Canada -- including B.C.

Arbitrator Jim Hayes ruled that a mandatory vaccine-or-mask policy was a "coercive tool" and "unreasonable" based on evidence presented.

"What is extremely clear is that the evidence underpinning an assessment of the burden of disease caused by unvaccinated health care workers has come under heavy criticism from several reputable sources apart from the experts who appeared in this case," Hayes wrote in his 136-page decision. "In my opinion the extremely limited, not to say absolute lack of, assistance of such evidence was demonstrated."

While Saskatchewan announced in reaction that flu shots or masks would be voluntary, B.C. chief medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall refused to back down despite BC Nurses' Union requests to revoke the policy.

It's unlikely the issue will go away as controversy continues.

And now scientists fear repeated vaccination may actually be lowering -- not raising -- the effectiveness of the shots, with the recent Canadian study finding that paradoxically, those who did not have the shot the previous year seemed to have more protection than those who got it both years.

Fear-based advertising

Second -- government and health officials continue to heavily promote getting flu shots through the use of fear mongering by exaggerating the risk of death.

The Public Health Agency of Canada states on its website: "It is estimated that, in a given year, an average of 12,200 hospitalizations related to influenza and approximately 3,500 deaths attributable to influenza occur."

But PHAC also says elsewhere on the same website that in the past four years the range of flu-related reported fatalities was 100 to 600 annually, while hospitalizations ranged from 2,000 to just under 8,000.

And in the 2015-16 season, the number of deaths with statistics to Jan. 9 is 10 while hospitalizations are 201.

PHAC notes "not all provinces and territories participate in reporting" but does not say which don't and shows nine or 10 did most years.

But that reporting is still likely far more accurate than the PHAC estimate of 3,500 deaths a year -- since it was based on a computer "regression modelling" study and not actual cause of death statistics.

"This is a scientific guess. This is not the truth," Dr. Michael Gardam, director of the infection prevention and control unit at Toronto's University Health Network told the CBC in 2012.

Every fatality is a tragedy and clearly high-risk individuals such as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems need to take all precautions -- including the flu shot if recommended by their doctor.

But for government officials to overestimate flu deaths repeatedly as a reason for the shot is inaccurate and misleading.

More research needed: doctor

So why is the flu shot so heavily promoted?

Clearly much of the medical establishment thinks even a very limited effectiveness is worthwhile until a better product can be delivered. And for some patients that may be true so long as other precautions are taken too.

But it's also true that major pharmaceutical companies make millions selling a product that fails to do its advertised job more than half the time, year after year.

That hasn't stopped groups like the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations from taking to social media with infographics promoting flu shots.

Their campaign hasn't convinced Dr. McCartney, who wants to see "randomized controlled trials of the vaccine in healthy over 65s and health care workers, at least" -- and who, like me, does not get an annual flu shot.

"I would have the vaccination if a high-quality trial showed that it was worth it for me or my patients. But flu vaccination is offered millions of times every year at huge opportunity cost; given so much uncertainty, this policy is impossible to justify," Dr. McCartney concludes in an article in the British Medical Journal.

Canadians deserve the full story on flu shots -- and spending massive amounts of public money on ineffective vaccines, while forcing B.C. health workers to have shots or wear masks, is simply dead wrong.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

BC Budget Gives People with Disabilities First Rate Increase Since 2007 - And Takes Back Much of It For Over Half of Recipients

BC Finance Minister Mike de Jong at BC Budget 2016 - Bill Tieleman photo
UPDATE - Disability Benefits Transit Clawback Much Worse Than Even I Thought!

It's hard to believe but new information brought forward by Raise The Rates and the BC Disability Alliance shows that there is yet another transit clawback from the long-await rate increase for people with disabilities that makes it even more measly.

It sounded modestly positive - a $77 monthly increase in disability benefits after 9 long years without one as inflation ate away the meagre amount given by the BC government.

But now we learn that not only will people with disabilities now be forced to pay $52 a month for a bus pass out of that $77 increase - leaving just $25 as the actual rate hike - but they will also still have to pay the $45 annual "administration fee" that was previously charged.

That means the $25 disability benefits increase is further reduced by a monthly $3.75 [the per month amount of the $45 a year administration fee], meaning the hike is just $21.25 a month.

If you amortize that amount over the 9 years without any increase, it means that people with disabilities have had a rate increase of just 2.3% over those 9 years - while inflation has gone up by about 1.1% a year - and the already inadequate $906 a month in 2007 should have been $990 by 2015.

Instead, it will be just $927 plus change - and that won't happen till September 2016. 

And that's downright shameful in the province with Canada's best economy. 


After Transit Deductions Removed, Disability Benefit Rate Increases Range From 1.2% to 8.5% - Over 9 years

By Bill Tieleman

"I don't think this makes life easier for people with disabilities - hopefully it makes it a little less hard."

- BC Finance Minister Mike de Jong, Feb. 16, 2016

People with disabilities - don't pop any champagne corks over the 2016 BC budget - because the first increase in disability benefits since all the way back to 2007 ranges from tiny to next to nothing.

And those little hikes come on an entirely inadequate disability benefits rate of $906 a month.  And the increase won't even happen till September 1, 2016.

The BC Liberal government's "up to $77 per month rate increase" might still sound slightly good - until you realize that anyone currently receiving either a bus pass or a special transportation subsidy will lose those in exchange for the rate increase.

That means the $77 increase is minus the $66 per month special transportation subsidy that about 20,000 disability benefits recipients currently receive - leaving them with just an $11 a month improvement.

That's just a 1.2% benefits increase - and when you amortize that over the 9 years without any hike and the annual increase is literally infinitesimal - 0.13%

For the roughly 35,000 people currently receiving bus passes worth $52 a month - subtracting that means an increase of just $25 a month - or a 2.75% increase over 9 years - not exactly cost of living.

Those who were not receiving any transit or transportation funding previously will get the full $77 a month - which works out to a 8.5% increase over 9 years - less than 1% a year.

Compare those puny funding increases to the monthly savings that de Jong introduced by cutting the Medical Services Plan for families with children - up to $648 a year or $54 a month for a couple with two children earning $39,000 to $43,000.

Suffer a debilitating illness or injury - tough luck.  Decide to have two kids on a modest income - payday.

I put a question to de Jong in the budget lockup - and his answer won't give people with disabilities any more comfort.

After pointing out that the disability benefits increase would be as little as $11 a month for 20,000 people, I asked the minister: "Is it not a bit unfair to have an increase that low?"

De Jong's response: "For that group the impact is very modest."

"$77 in today's world is a pretty modest amount of money, which is why I'm not trying to overestimate it," de Jong added, referring to the amount of rate increase that the roughly 47,000 people with disabilities who currently don't receive any transit assistance will get.

De Jong was right - it won't make life easier for people with disabilities - it will remind them of how unfairly they are being treated once again.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

They're Americans, Not Idiots - Despite Support for Donald Trump, Buying More Guns After Mass Shootings, Etc.

Donald Trump - America's next and greatest president?
Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday January 12, 2016

By Bill Tieleman

"Don't wanna be an American idiot / Don't want a nation under the new mania."

- Green Day, "American Idiot," 2004

Are Americans idiots?

It's a question many Canadians are asking as they watch Republican presidential nominee candidate Donald Trump gain more popularity with each more outrageous statement.

UPDATE: Donald Trump easily won the New Hampshire primary on February 9 and leads in several polls as the contest heads to other states.  As Britain's Weekly Standard put it: 

"Every Republican candidate who finished first and second in Iowa and New Hampshire has won the presidential nomination. Having done so, Trump is now in a class with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney." 

Or when a bunch of ornery yahoos occupy an Oregon wildlife refuge with guns aplenty but not enough food to last any longer than the Alamo.

Or when the American response to a mass shooting like those at San Bernardino or the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut is to buy more guns in a country with 89 guns per 100 people.

For Canadians who love their neighbours but seriously question their intelligence at times like these, it's a troubling thought.

Politics beyond parody

Unfortunately, the easy way out is to simply ridicule those who live south of the world's longest, friendliest border.

Canadians can't seem to get enough of U.S. late-night television hosts delightedly denouncing Trump's travesties. We guffaw at the overwrought but underfed occupiers in Oregon, or cringe watching

President Barack Obama openly cry at his country's astonishing lack of gun control, even as school children are massacred by monsters.

And admittedly, the idea of a President Donald Trump running the most powerful nation in the world is both absurdly humorous and frighteningly possible.

But to simply scoff and write off the support Trump enjoys, the backing Oregon militiamen actually have, and Americans' love of guns from our superior northern vantage point would be ignorant on our part.

A smarter approach is to look at why Trump appeals to many U.S. voters -- and could win the Republican nomination, possibly the presidency.

More frightening possibilities

Trump is a rich, self-serving windbag who will say almost anything to earn headlines -- from promising a literal wall to keep out Mexicans border jumpers to temporarily banning Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the United States.

And with quotes like this, he alienates entire countries: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

Yet each time Trump blows up another media controversy bomb, his popularity explodes.

But behind the hype is a truism -- that Americans are deeply worried about terrorism killing them and immigration taking away their jobs in a troubled economy.

Trump intuitively gets that fear and plays to it brilliantly in his campaign, reinforcing negative stereotypes while disregarding plain truths.

And that doesn't matter -- because the alternatives seem far worse and more suspect.

The other Republican nominees are lacklustre losers compared to the billionaire blowhard -- can Canadians criticize Americans for backing Trump when the other choices are Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?

Cost of doing business?

Trump is also using his wealth as an advantage -- paying the full bill for his campaign instead of depending on the insanely expensive American political system that is dominated by giant corporations and the rich -- whether the candidates are Republicans or Democrats.

The Oregon occupiers mine a similar turf -- right-wing distrust in big government combined with anger at national parks expanding to take away land used by ranchers.

And those Americans buying more guns to protect themselves in a country with an insane number of gun deaths -- 33,636 in 2013 -- are expressing their disbelief that government can protect them from terrorists and gangsters.

And I say that as someone with a restricted weapons license who is not anti-gun.

Obama's failed efforts to control guns have only resulted in more Americans packing heat -- the share value of major gun makers Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co. have gone up an amazing 900 per cent since he took office in 2009.

Compare that to Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, which only rose 147 per cent in the same period.

"Mr. Obama is the best gun salesman on the planet," said Louis Navellier, chairman of the Nevada investment firm Navellier & Associates, which bought firearm stocks heavily and is profiting as a result.

Off that high horse!

Are Canadians really so different and more sensible?

One of the key factors generally acknowledged in Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election win was his celebrity status -- he has 1.25 million Twitter followers.

And Trump has been a celebrity for decades -- but his 5.6 million Twitter followers are proportionately far less than Trudeau's despite being in a country 10 times larger.

Let's hope we are immune to a Canadian version of Trump. 

But don't condemn Americans as "idiots" simply because some desperately support what we see as terribly faulty solutions to very real problems.