If you follow me on Twitter (and if you don't, why aren't you?), you have likely already heard about a PSA put out by the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and Mercola.com, two slick anti-vaccine organizations. The PSA is being run on Delta Airlines flight. You can read more about it at Skepchick and Respectful Insolence. The Skepchick article includes steps you can take to combat the propaganda, including a link to a petition to get Delta to stop showing it on their flights.
The video is available on YouTube (Update: It looks like NVIC removed the video at that link, but it is still up here and here [Update: looks like it has been removed from Facebook, now, too]), but cannot be embedded. Comments have also been turned off, perhaps to avoid inconvenient critiques from science-minded individuals. On the surface, it appears to be pretty good advice, so why all the fuss?
Because the PSA includes some iffy information and, more importantly, directs people to the NVIC web site, which is rife with misinformation and distortions of fact.
Hand and Cough Hygiene
The video starts out with some very good advice, such as practicing good hand hygiene and covering your cough. We touch a lot of things throughout the day, and we touch our faces, a lot. Every object we touch, whether it be a doorknob, cup, keyboard, etc., is a potential fomite that may be carrying influenza particles. Those particles get on our hands and then are brought to our face through touching our nose, mouth, eyes, or even ingested as they move from our hands to the sandwich or potato chips we're eating. Washing your hands, thoroughly, before you touch your face can wash these particles away, thus preventing infection. If we have the flu, then washing our hands after touching our face and before touching other objects can help prevent the spread of virus particles to other people.
Likewise, if you have to sneeze or cough, cover your mouth to prevent germs being propelled into the air around you. The best thing to do is to cover your nose and mouth with your elbow. This can create a good seal, minimizing the number of particles that go out into the environment, as well as keeping your hands clean. If you cover with your hand, be sure to use a tissue or other barrier, and whether you use a barrier or not, wash your hands afterward. If you think you're helping prevent anything by coughing at the ground, well, you aren't. Always cover your cough or sneeze to prevent spreading infection to others.
Exercise and a Good Diet
The video states that exercise and diet can help you avoid getting sick from the flu. In moderation, exercise may help strengthen your immune system, but don't overdo it. There is some evidence to suggest that excessive exercise can actually impair your immune system. What exercise will not do, however, is prevent you from being infected. Whether you're a star athlete or a couch potato, if the virus makes it to you, chances are good that you will be infected. At that point, it's up to your immune system to duke it out with the virus to prevent disease.
The same can be said of diet. A balanced diet will ensure that your immune system operates at the best that it is physically capable. That said, your baseline may be better or, yes, worse, than someone else. As with exercise, having sufficient intake of nutrients will help your immune system fend off disease, but it won't prevent you from being infected.
Vitamins D and C
The PSA also mentions that vitamins D and C can help you stay healthy. While there is some evidence that maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D can aid your immune system to fight off infections, there's only so much that your body can actually use. Taking more than what your body needs will not make your immune system function better than its peak performance; your body will just try to get rid of the excess. In fact, if you take too much, it can cause some big problems. The evidence for Vitamin C is a bit more equivocal.
But again, as with exercise and diet, vitamin D and C might help fight off infection once you're exposed, but it won't prevent infection.
The video ends by suggesting that vaccines are another option. While it surprised me to see that they would even suggest vaccines as a means of preventing the flu, the manner in which they did so did not. NVIC's Barbara Loe Fisher presents it as an "option" and implies that it really isn't all that necessary. And while the efficacy appears to be around 59% on average, leaving ample room for improvement, it still offers a much better means of keeping you healthy than relying solely on exercise, diet and hand hygiene. And unlike exercise and diet, which basically leave your immune system to deal on its own, vaccination gives your immune system some training. It learns what to look for and how to handle it once it sees the virus. Think of it as facing a mugger. You can do your best to defend yourself just on instinct, or you can take some training, learning what to watch out for and how to most effectively deal with a threat when the mugger actually does strike.
Vaccines won't prevent the viruses entering your body, but they will significantly improve your odds of taking out the trash before you have any problems.
The PSA concludes by directing people to the NVIC web site for more information. This is where the problem lies. As already mentioned, the NVIC has an agenda to frighten people away from vaccines, through the use of misleading vaccine ingredient calculators, scare stories (e.g., Gardasil: The Damage Continues) and a wall dedicated to those who have been injured by vaccines (whether they actually were or if it was some other cause is open to debate). There is precious little that is in favor of vaccination, and certainly no tribute to individuals harmed by the diseases that vaccines prevent. It is the mix of sound advice with nonsense and pseudoscience (mercury causing autism, anyone?) that makes the NVIC a threat to public health.
In the end, Delta, and their customers, would be better served by playing a PSA that really has public health at its heart, without the ideology or dishonest spin in the NVIC spot. PSAs like these: