Last week, Delta Airlines began showing a 3-minute video on its in-flight entertainment system that was produced by the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) – an organization that, despite its official-sounding name, is a leading anti-vaccination group in the United States. Among images of happy kids and families, washing hands, and eating oranges (a natural preventative, according to the video), the ad downplays the risk from flu (watch it here).
There is nothing outright anti-vaccine in this advertisement. But there is plenty on the NVIC website, to which the video directs viewers, several times, for more information. And the video makes no mention of government or medical organization sites, like Flu.gov, that provide vetted information and, perhaps more to the point, strongly encourage immunization.
Beyond that, however, should an organization that is known for its anti-vaccine advocacy be the voice of public health for Delta passengers as flu season approaches?
As Matthew Herper at Forbes.com reported earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn't think so. In a letter calling on Delta to remove the ad, the AAP doesn't think it's a good idea to be "providing advertising space to an organization like the NVIC, which opposes the nation's recommended childhood immunization schedule and promotes the unscientific practice of delaying or skipping vaccines altogether."
Another group is circulating an online petition calling on Delta to remove the video.
Flu shots are part of the arsenal of protection rolled out before and during every flu season. Public health messages on hand washing and staying home from work and school when you are sick, in tandem with getting vaccinated, afford all of us the best protection against the illness. And despite the same old same old we hear every year around this time—"I don't need a flu shot, I had one last year," "It was the flu shot that made me sick," "vaccines are dangerous," and "the flu just isn't that bad, I don't need a shot"—the flu is in fact a deadly virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 116 children in the United States died of complications from influenza during the 2010-11 season, half of whom were otherwise healthy before contracting the virus. In 2009-10, that number was 282. Most of those who died were unvaccinated. Overall, during the 30-year period from 1976 to 2006, deaths from flu in the U.S. ranged from 3,000 to 49,000 people of all ages. The most vulnerable are the elderly, children, and pregnant women, as well as those with high-risk health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.
In the interest of full disclosure, I got my flu shot earlier this week.
It was easy.
I went to my neighborhood pharmacy, showed them my insurance card, and filled out a consent form. (The Philadelphia Department of Public Health also runs free flu vaccination clinics for residents throughout the city; many suburban health departments offer flu shots as well.) The very nice pharmacist came around the counter, put on some surgical gloves, prepped the needle, and stuck me. Advice to those who fear shots—take a deep breath at the moment you are pricked, exhale slowly, and you feel almost nothing.
Public health dialog around the need for and risks of vaccination should not be stifled. In fact, we must do a better job at working with an increasingly vaccine-hesitant public to help them better understand vaccination and its public health importance.
Delta Airlines (which was contacted for comment on this story, but has not yet responded) must recognize this – especially given that, at 39,000 feet, in a space with poor air circulation and an already increased risk for spreading illnesses like influenza, its goal should be about protecting its passengers and arming them with scientifically validated information about vaccines and flu risk.