AoA Circulates H1N1 Hoax

6 Nov

On October 27, AoA posted an article titled “Without Vaccine, Australia Shrugs Off Swine Flu”, By David Burd. This article consists of a string of claims clearly at odds with reality:

“(Australia has) no vaccine available for H1N1 flu…”

The University of Queensland claimed to have manufactured the first litre of an H1N1 vaccine made in Australia on June 29, 2009. Large-scale immunization began on September 28.

“Australia recently ended its 2009 `Flu Season’ (their Winter in our Summer), with 186 flu-associated fatalities of 36,991 Aussies confirmed having H1N1.”

Australian authorities openly acknowledge that their “official” numbers are very incomplete. Many possible cases have gone unconfirmed, due to limited resources and the rapid accumulation of reports. It is possible that a significant number of deaths went intentionally unreported, to circumvent government rationing of antiviral drugs. In any event, H1N1 is presumably still spreading, as the number of officially acknowledged cases has continued to grow. On October 26, the day before Burd’s article was posted, a new report acknowledged 37,039 cases, 48 more than the Oct. 21 report which provided Burd’s figure.

“Canadian front page news on flu vaccinations has transfixed Canada health authorities, prompting official suspension of regular flu vaccination programs until further notice.”

What actually happened is that authorities in one province of Canada decided not to give the H1N1 vaccine to those over 65 H1N1 vaccine production and distribution has not stopped and may accelerate. A Canadian commenting on an earlier essay of mine has said, “The only temporary suspension that occurs is when we run out of vaccines…”

“This comes from a sweeping study of Canada by research Doctors Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre of Disease Control and Gaston De Serres of Laval University in Quebec concluding Canadians receiving flu vaccinations have twice the risk of coming down with the flu, compared to those who do not take the shot.”

The study in question did not claim that receiving an H1N1 vaccine increased the risk of H1N1 infection, which is almost certainly what Burd wishes to imply. Rather, it claimed that those who had received the seasonal flu vaccine in 2008 were at higher risk of catching H1N1 during the following year. Skowronski openly admitted that an actual causal relationship is open to debate.

“(On Oct. 4) U.S. doctors offered the opinion that the Canadian doctors’ flu vaccination study was certainly wrong and must have used flawed study parameters, though (they) admittedly could not identify anything specific.”

No later than September 26, CDC spokesman Joe Quimby stated, “(S)cientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not seen this effect in systems we have reviewed in the U.S.

The most benign interpretation of this article is that Burd has credulously accepted a number of possible “urban legends”. I think there can be little doubt that modern “legends” are involved. I find the claim that H1N1 vaccination has been suspended in Canada, in particular, plausible as a “real” Canadian rumor. Bogus reports of current or impending changes in US government policies are a common type of “urban legend” in the US itself, and it is only to be expected that other nations would be subject to similar lore. But, such bogus reports often merge into hoaxes and scams. (A commonly aired suspicion is that individuals or groups create or promote legends about their enemies.) I am inclined to interpret Burd’s article (and AoA’s publication of it) as more in the vein of a hoax. Even if they more or less believe the story, it is hard to regard its posting as anything but cynical posturing.

Urban legends about H1N1 and its vaccines are already being noted, as in a chain email about a hospital supposedly warning staff not to be vaccinated. Such rumors can be recognized questioned promptly by looking for the following “clues”:

1. The report is more like a personal narrative than “news”, particularly in giving very specific details about people and events without specific dates, locations, etc.
2. The narrative, or a part thereof, is attributed to someone other than the immediate source or an acquaintance thereof (the infamous “friend of a friend” tale!)
3. The narrative features what I call a “phantom quote”: a sensational statement by a supposedly authoritative but unnamed or unfamiliar source.
4. Statements by named and familiar sources are not easily found or verified, for example being without a given broadcast or publication date, or especially being allegedly censored before wide distribution.
5. You have already heard a similar story with differences in key details.

By recognizing such clues, one can recognize a fundamentally suspicious story even before trying to verify it independently. Being on guard at first hearing may well be a better defense against the spread of disinformation than any amount of subsequent investigation.

David N. Brown is an AS adult living in Mesa, Arizona. He is author of the ebook The Urban legend of Vaccine-Caused Autism and several works of fiction, and creator of the autism website

23 Responses to “AoA Circulates H1N1 Hoax”

  1. Sullivan November 6, 2009 at 08:52 #

    Welcome to frequent commenter David N. Brown in this guest blogger piece.

  2. Laurentius Rex November 6, 2009 at 12:00 #

    Urban legend or not, I am quite prepared to believe that our “enemies” spread viral disinformation against which there is presently no vaccine or cure, only treatment consisting of rational challenge which is unfortunately not guaranteed success.

    Yes there are the usual garbage urban legends and viral videos, some deliberate hoaxes no doubt, others simply ill informed or heavily slanted.

    For instance whilst it is undoubtedly true that the 70’s swine flu vaccine caused more illness than it prevented, this is still a statistical anomoly given that if you suppose the vaccine had prevented a more widespread epidemic, it no doubt prevented a greater number of deaths that would have been a result, therefore a limited swine flu outbreak with few deaths was to be expected.

    However it is enough to scare me nonetheless.

    I think nonetheless the risk of severe side effect from a vaccination is less than that of a sever side effect from a routine anesthetic, yet how many people consider the risk of this aspect of surgery, very few I would think because one is conditioned to think it is safe (which of course it is except in exceptional cases of pre existing respiratory difficulty)

    As for me, have I had the vaccine? No, it has not even been offered me, I ceased to be on any priority list when my mum died, when I did recieve regular vaccines. It may be too late for me any way I am getting over a particular nasty virus which may well have been the swine flu, its practically impossible to tell from the many unvaccinable winter virus’ going around all of which can be risky if you are vulnerable all of which could also mutate into the third horseman of the apocalypse for all we know but the media doesn’t focus on that.

    The annual meningitis panic has failed to arrive this year, seems swine flu is trumps.

  3. storkdok November 6, 2009 at 12:22 #

    This comment captures the both the conspiracy theories and idiocy of the antivaxxers:

    “I keep thinking that vaccines are the “Mark of the Beast” that is talked about in the Book of Revelation. Soon, if we don’t have “the mark” we won’t be able to work or go to school or shop… me crazy but the world feels pretty crazy right about now!!
    (For those other Aspies out there….this is meant to be satirical in nature).

    Posted by: Love2Auties | October 28, 2009 at 01:01 AM ”

    Sorry I don’t know how to do the block quotations. Anyway, not sure if this is truly satire or not.

    Nice post, David Brown!

  4. jypsy November 6, 2009 at 12:35 #

    I wonder if they will recommend
    cut up onions spread around in their houses next…

  5. abfh November 6, 2009 at 16:47 #

    I would like to ask everyone here to keep in your thoughts and prayers the son of blogger Attila the Mom:

    He has been hospitalized in critical condition for the past two weeks with complications from H1N1.

  6. Leila November 6, 2009 at 20:02 #

    My thoughts are with Attila the Mom and her family.

    H1N1 is really serious and I can’t stand to see posts minimizing the threat or even making jokes about it. David N. Brown is doing a great service debunking the hoax and the AoA post.

  7. David N. Brown November 6, 2009 at 20:43 #

    The onion story is very interesting from a folklorist’s perspective. It’s actually clearly carried over from Medieval practice. The reasoning then was that the strong smell countered foul air thought to cause disease at the time. Apparently, the practice survived or revived independent of the original rational.

    Thanks. I will keep this family in my thoughts.

  8. David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. November 6, 2009 at 21:34 #

    “The onion story is very interesting from a folklorist’s perspective.”

    Ethnologist by any chance?

    Educational ethno-psychologist here…

  9. David N. Brown November 6, 2009 at 22:05 #

    Mostly, I have read a lot about world mythology/folklore, as well as history. One particular area of interest is revenant (“undead”) traditions (subject of my novel Walking Dead). Repelling revenants and/or evil spirits is another property of onions in folklore. This is another reason why pre-modern people used garlic and onion against disease, since revenants were often blamed for plague.

  10. Clay November 6, 2009 at 22:59 #

    I got my regular flu shot at the VA today. They didn’t have the H1N1 shot yet, although they were told “November”. They were giving out masks to everyone, as they don’t want their personnel to catch anything.

  11. Shanna November 7, 2009 at 03:42 #

    My son has received the H1N1 vaccine (the mist). He is three years old, so he was one of the first eligible to receive it. He had no reaction to it nor has he to any vaccine. He will get another dose in a month. My husband also received it because he is an ICU nurse and it was required. A majority of his patients since September have had swine flu. (most having other complications, mainly obesity.)

  12. Laurentius Rex November 7, 2009 at 10:52 #

    Well there is a new one, I can see how obesity might arise out of swine flu if lack of appetite is not one of the symptoms, thus

    Whatever is laying me low at the moment had meant that I have not been getting as much excercise lately as usual, I have not gone for my usual walks, gone swimming or to the gym in over 2 weeks now 🙂

    BTW I have found onions very effective for absorbing the smell of paint, that does work, of course it is this ability that gives rise to the urban legend that what works for bad odours works for “miasma” too.

  13. Visitor November 7, 2009 at 13:09 #

    Not meaning to be rude or anything, but I’m slightly mystified as to why a loony anti-vax website’s crap is seen to be worth blogging about. As if these people should be setting our agenda, or be something we need to pay attention to.

    I sometimes wonder whether autism is thought to have enough going on within it, as a field, to sustain a blog.

    I mean why do we even want in our heads what the age of autism idiots think about flu vaccines? We know they are controlled by unscrupulous cranks and liars. So why bother?

  14. Shanna November 7, 2009 at 14:15 #

    When I said they were obese I was meaning prior to catching the swine flu. Most of the adults who have gotten really sick have had pre exiting conditions such as obesity.

    I am not quite sure who should determine what is blog worthy. I personally feel that the person making the post feels it is worthy of attention or would not have taken the time to write it. If you aren’t interested in the topic, why bother taking the time to comment.

  15. David N. Brown November 7, 2009 at 20:49 #

    I can respect your challenge. A major reason why I find anti-vaccine groups of interest is that I can see many ways in which they draw upon older folklore and “archetypes”. I think a “folkloric” approach is the best way to account for their potential impact.

    I would also like to clarify my opinion on the role of legends vs. deliberate hoaxes. Where the two overlap, I think that it is usually the legend that comes first. I have two major reasons for this: First, hoaxers in general appear to have a limited capacity for imagination and inventiveness (as seen blatantly in art forgers). Second, blaming a hoaxer does not explain why people believed in the hoax. The general lesson to be drawn is that identifying “cranks and liars” is only part of understanding the root of a problem.

  16. Visitor November 8, 2009 at 11:44 #


    Sorry if I was rude. I agree about the hoax, and have a lot of time for your contributions. I was probably just feeling a little testy about any sense that their website was any kind of credible source which ought to be corrected when in error. It’s plainly nothing but an anti-vax front.

    On which point, I yesterday looked at the website of the Autism Society of America, expecting more of the same.

    I have to say, though, that apart from their somewhat dilatory failure to update their page on the omnibus hearing (ie give the results), they seem to have kept themselves (or at least their website) on a very credible path.

    I’d probably like to see more engagement with them because I think in the UK the vaccine-autism debate is finished, and in America it’s flatlining.

  17. David N. Brown November 9, 2009 at 05:24 #

    No offense was taken. I would say, in response to your additional comments, that all evidence indicates that anti-vax activity works in cycles (with drops occurring with outbreaks of preventable disease). Urban legends also commonly go through cycles of revival. My major goal in writing about this is to provide a body of observation and theory which people can work from the next time the cycle repeats.

  18. Risa November 9, 2009 at 21:08 #

    I am a Canadian, and I live in the province that suspended vaccinations entirely for a few days (Alberta). This had NOTHING whatsoever to do with safety or effectiveness of the vaccine; it was due to overwhelming line-ups and a poorly planned first offering of vaccinations in my province. Most regions in Canada restricted the vaccine at first to those science (from around the world!) is showing to be a higher risk of serious complications from H1N1: e.g., asthmatics, pregnant women, etc. In Alberta, the decision was made to offer the vaccine to everyone–no prioties or sequencing. Right before vaccinations became available here (Mon. Oct 26th), there was heavy media coverage of the H1N1 death of an otherwise healthy 13 year old boy in Ontario (healthy enough to play in a hockey tournament less than 48 hours before his rapid-onset death). This spooked people into getting the shot, or at least taking it more seriously for their children, and we got crazy line-ups with folks waiting anywhere from 2-7 hours for a shot–this included lining up outside in the cold AB weather! The decision was made after Saturday’s clinics, which were so overwhelmed by line-ups that folks were being turned away before they even opened for the day (as the nurses can only do so many) to cease all vaccinations and come up with a different strategy. Vaccinations resumed a few days ago, first available to children under 5 (birth certificate needed), then pregnant women, and now it is being offered to more groups.

    Alberta’s latest stats show 546 H1N1 hospitalizations and 25 deaths–and these are the lab-confirmed cases only, not the “suspected” ones. Here’s the link:

    I am of two minds on this. I have read reports saying flu kills 2000-4000 Canadians per year, and since AB has about 10% of the population, I’d expect 200-400 deaths per year from seasonal flu. 25 H1N1 deaths therefore seems low. On the other hand, the Alberta Health Services website has a “Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 Response Plan” link of their page (blue button; it’ll open a pdf file):

    And in that report (which I largely ignore as it is full of “best guesses” as to how many will eventually die, numbers I don’t put much stock in) at the end of the second paragraph on page 7 it says, “seasonal influenza usually results in about 17 deaths annually in Alberta.” If this is the true number, I am mystified at why everyone keeps saying H1N1 is a mild flu.

    I’ve been writing about H1N1 for a while now on my blog, and doing my best to take a more even-handed approach than you’ll find in the media if you are interested.

  19. David N. Brown November 9, 2009 at 21:35 #

    I had learned since writing this that there had been a vaccination stoppage. My understanding is that this was after Burd’s article was published. I had suspected that this was the result of a “run” on vaccine centers, and your information is of great interest. The possibility crossed my mind that a rumor about the vx being pulled could have contributed to this. It’s also conceivable that anti-vax groups saw what was coming and timed their releases so that unrelated developments would appear to substantiate it.

    I will definitely check out your blog. One more thought: I have noticed that anti-vax commenters are showing resistance to reports that there are vaccine shortages. Undoubtedly this is because the profit-driven gov/pharma conspiracy they imagine would be too powerful and smart to be tripped up by conventional logistics problems.

  20. Risa November 9, 2009 at 22:00 #

    It was announced on the Friday (Oct. 30th) that there would be less vaccine shipped to the provinces than originally expected, and this definitely contributed to the “run” on the vaccine on Saturday. The official reason given (I leave it up to you to judge its truth) was that GSK was changing production for the next 2 week period to non-adjuvanted vaccine for pregnant women and small children (in Canada the general H1N1 vacccine contains an adjuvant–as there is inadequate data (studies) on adjuvants in pregnancy, this recommendation was made on the side of caution. Anti-vaccers will, of course, use this fact to imply there is some known risk to pregnant women–the truth is that we just don’t know. It is the first time an adjuvant has been used in a Cdn flu vaccine, though they are used in many common childhood immunizations, and from my reading I learned that adjuvants have been used in flu vaccines in Europe in tens of millions of people for more than a decade now.) The timing of this production change was particularly awful as recent data from the WHO suggested pregnant women could safely take the adjuvanted vaccine, but this was unknown at the time the order was placed. Note too that you can make more shots using adjuvant (the amount of antigen–dead virus–in 1 non-adjuvanted shot can be made into 4 shots with adjuvants), so this also explains the lower quantities being shipped (and, IMHO, at least some of why the US has such a shortage of vaccine).

    I have examples on my blog of how data is being misrepresented by some arguing for the anti-vac / pro-conspiracy theory side. See especially “Last Year’s Flu season doesn’t mean what you think it does”, as well as the “Bus stop blog” and the one “another Inaccurate H1N1 blogpost and my response.” Hope it is helpful. I welcome comments made in a civilized tone–disagreement is great, I learn! But not when folks are rude or name-calling, etc. 🙂

  21. David N. Brown November 11, 2009 at 19:47 #

    A little bit of followup. After more investigation, I have found that there was actually a suspension of seasonal flu vaccination. This would correspond to what Burd reports as “official suspension of regular flu vaccination”, and at THAT point it’s pretty clear that he means the regular flu vaccine. However, I still find it suspicious that he fails to be equally clear in subsequent statements. In any event, it is clearly his intent to present an alleged problem with the seasonal vaccine as good reason not to receive the H1N1 vaccine.

  22. Chris November 4, 2012 at 17:26 #

    Third bit of this spam today. Go away.


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