The Health Wrap from the Sax Institute communications team takes a look at the media coverage of three of the top public health stories that have been making headlines over the past fortnight. Enjoy this new format of the wrap and don’t forget to tweet us @SaxInstitute if you have any feedback on the changes or ideas you’d like to share.
Flu shot fake news?
A bitter row has broken out over this year’s flu vaccine, with claim and counter-claim traded over whether the vaccine was the most effective available or instead the best value-for-money. This year was the nastiest flu season on record, with 217,000 laboratory-confirmed cases , more than twice the record set in 2015. So far this year, 546 Australians have died from the flu, with the median age of death of 85.
The media controversy began with a story in the Daily Telegraph (paywalled) and other News Corp outlets, which suggested that “Doctors are blaming the $6 budget version of the flu vaccine used in the national vaccination program for the problem (of flu illnesses and deaths in 2017)”. The article went on to highlight that a vaccine which is four times stronger and costs $8 per dose was found to be 24 per cent more effective in preventing influenza, but it was not being used. Professor Paul Van Buynder from the Immunisation Coalition gave an interview where he was quoted stating:
Paying for a vaccine that doesn’t work is a false economy, if you can stop tens of thousands of people getting sick or hospitalisation the extra expense is worth undertaking… This was a disaster year (for the flu) and if we don’t get policy change as a result heaven help me.”
This story was soon picked up by other outlets, including The Daily Mail Australia and Channel 10 News and a media frenzy ensued. This was reinforced by comments from NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who was quoted by ABC News as saying “What we got, unfortunately, was a vaccine, with the benefit of hindsight — and hindsight is a wonderful thing — that wasn’t quite up to it”.
These assertions and the media reports prompted a robust response from the Federal Government, with the Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy using unusually strong language to label the claims of a budget flu vaccine as “utterly false“. As reported by SBS and many other media outlets, Professor Murphy then went on to state that: “The flu vaccines chosen this year were the best available in the Australian market, selected by medical experts in Australia and around the world”. In a report by the Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Murphy stated:
I could not be clearer – I completely refute this false claim.”
Less than 24 hours after the News Corp report on his comments ignited the controversy, Professor Van Buynder and the Immunisation Coalition distanced themselves from the claims, releasing the following statement:
Media reports referring to ‘cheap vaccines’ don’t accurately describe the situation of vaccine purchasing in Australia. The vaccine purchased by the Australian Government and used this year was the best available in Australia at the time, and remains so today.
While the vaccine was relatively ineffective in the elderly this year, we had no alternative vaccine available. The effectiveness of the vaccine for those under 65 was within normal expectations this season.
We look forward to Government and industry working on bringing better products into Australia. Vaccination is still the single, most effective way to prevent influenza.”
Assisted-dying laws in Victoria
Debate has begun this week in the Victorian Parliament Upper House on the controversial and emotionally charged Voluntary Assisted-Dying Bill. The bill passed the lower house of the Victorian Parliament on 20 October, after a marathon debate which the Guardian’s Gay Alcorn caustically noted was “hardly democracy at its finest“.
Since the passage of the legislation, all eyes have turned to Victorian Upper House, where a majority of the MPs will need to support the bill if it is to become law. Plenty of high profile pressure is being brought to bear on the “no” side, with former Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Tony Abbott both speaking out against the Bill publicly. They have been joined by the NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet who penned a strongly-worded opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald on why he opposes the legislation in Victoria, and will vote against a similar bill in NSW if similar legislation comes to pass.
Back in Victoria, an ABC News report suggested that the fate of the legislation is in the hands of about five MPs. The Sex party founder and upper house MP Fiona Patten, who has pushed for the legislation since her election, told The Guardian that she expected the vote would be “very close, but I feel that we will pass it”. One of the key crossbenchers in the Upper House – Vote 1 Local Jobs MP James Purcell – indicated that he was likely to support the bill, but with amendments, according to the The Age.
Introducing the bill to the Upper House, the leader of the government Gavin Jennings was quoted by the New Daily as saying;
Far too many Victorians have suffered too much and for too long at the end of their lives. Improving policy and community awareness about the end-of-life, and death, are essential if we are to improve Victorians’ choices about how and where they experience both.”
The debate, inside the chamber and out, is expected to be protracted over the coming days.
Trump declares opioid addiction a national public-health emergency
On the other side of the Pacific, US President Donald Trump was making headlines with his decision to declare the opioid drug epidemic, which has been sweeping across the United States for almost two decades, a national public-health emergency. This Politfact article gives a full run down of what the declaration of a national public-health emergency actually means.
The human cost of the epidemic is truly staggering – with 64,000 Americans − roughly the population of Coffs Harbour − dying in 2016 alone from overdoes of opioid drugs such as oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin. A forecast by STAT news estimates that if nothing changes, as many as 650,000 US citizens will die in the next decade from opioid overdoses — equivalent to the total population of the Gold Coast-Tweed Heads area. If you want to know more on the roots of the opioid crisis, this Vox.com article and this roundup from the New York Times will get you up to speed.
In his public comments, President Trump acknowledged the scale of the problem, noting that:
No part of our society — not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural — has been spared this plague of drug addiction and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids… This epidemic is a national (public) health emergency.”
As with everything President Trump says or does, however, his decision was not without controversy. Many criticised him for walking back from an earlier promise to declare the epidemic a “national emergency”, which according to the New York Times “would have led to the quick allocation of federal funds”. According to ABC USA, top Democrat in the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi questioned the value of President Trump’s opioid declaration, calling for more funding to combat the epidemic; “What I would say to the President on that is, “Show me the money,'” she said. Comedian and TV Presenter John Oliver used his TV show to lambast the announcement because of the lack of funding commitment to tackle the huge problem:
Trump has finally chimed in with his two cents on how to tackle this crisis and it involved allotting, for the 2.6 million Americans addicted to opioids, literally about two cents each.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who heads the President’s opioid commission, said that he expected Mr Trump to ask for “billions” of dollars to fight the opioid epidemic.
Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:
- Do practitioners who politically oppose immigration detention have a valid role in caring for patients there?
- Indigenous Data Sovereignty: More than scholarship, it’s a movement
- The Voice proposal: an important mechanism for improving policy and Indigenous health
- Is Closing the Gap possible without constitutional reform?
- It’s time for another type of story about Indigenous smoking rates
- Compelling stories from the fight for smoke-free American Indian communities
- Reporting on Australian governments’ Indigenous funding
- It’s not me, it’s you: Universities must do better for Indigenous people
- Bubup Wilam: building a strong future for Aboriginal children
- A place to call home: housing and its influence on health
- More crack than floorboard – the 5th National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan
- Shouting out loud – hear the consumer voice in mental health policy and programs
- Powerful stories from inside mental health services – the barriers to quit smoking efforts
- “Killing with kindness” – calling out some myths about smoking, mental health and substance abuse
- Powerful call to stop human rights abuses of people with mental illness
- Celebrating the contribution of Jackie Crowe to mental health
- Who owns who in the Australian food market?
- Pain medicine: an important speciality you might not have heard of
- Patient-centred care is missing in action in Australia
- Hurry, hurry, hurry! 27 October deadline for pitches to Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition