Controversies IV – Vaccines


Today I learned something interesting. A guy who does Judo with me told me that in France there are concerns over Hep B shots and Multiple Sclerosis. Apparently, this is based on a discredited publication and health authorities have not been able to convince the French to begin taking the vaccines again. This is of serious concern for me, because he also mentioned that the vaccination rate was something like 30% or so.

In some ways France is lucky, because the vaccine isn’t as serious as the vaccine people are rejecting in the US. They are rejecting MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella), which are highly contagious. What can we learn from these two cases?

First, it is extremely difficult to overcome personal beliefs on scientific evidence. In both cases many different studies have been conducted to verify the safety of the vaccines. In the US, the connection was completely debunked. The Journal the Lancet it is the UK medical journal, actually went so far to retract the article. It was a flawed study where there were only 12 patients, they were unwilling included and the author was also being paid. There were many cases of ethical violations and the guy isn’t even allowed to practice medicine in the UK any more. He now works in the US. So, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary people still believe these findings.

Second, we learned that it’s not only conservatives, or a segment of the population that is uneducated that hold these anti-science beliefs. The topics I’ve talked about have focused primarily on that group. This controversy is with the liberal well educated group of people living in California. They have celebrity spokespeople and many of these people are engineers or some other scientifically based  profession. These people should know better.

What are the risks if we don’t vaccinate though? Well, vaccination works through protection of the herd. Everyone needs to be protected in the “herd” otherwise everyone is at risk. Well, that just sounds like a scare tactic. Ok, yes a bit, however vaccines don’t always work. You could have gotten vaccinated for MMR and it didn’t actually give you the anti-bodies you needed. It’s difficult to test for these things and expensive. Not something you’d want to subject a small child to. So, lets say that unknown to you, your child’s vaccine didn’t work, and another kid in class was intentionally unvaccinated. He some how comes across measles and comes to school with it. Your child could become ill, as well as any other person in the school that the vaccination didn’t work for or intentionally wasn’t vaccinated.

Ok, let’s say you’re right, why is Autism increasing? Well, partially we’ve changed the standards for what fits autism over time. In the past only people like Rainman would have been considered autistic, now there’s a well defined spectrum that includes a lot more types of behaviors. Other reasons may be from who are having children together. A recent study (WSJ summary) showed that Eindhoven has a significantly higher rate of autism than two other areas where there are many less technology jobs, thus less engineers and scientists. This also would indicate a possible reason why Silicon Valley might also have a higher rate than other places in the US. This does need additional research to compare regions in the US to regions like this and others around the world.

In conclusion, just because you believe non-scientific things does not mean you are stupid. There are a lot of changes in scientific literature. However, we need to develop techniques to educate people and convince them that the new data is right and that there is not some grand plot to make some one money (anti-vac think its the pharmaceutical companies lying) or destroy our economy (anti-climate change thing it’s a conspiracy to destroy the US economy). These groups are increasing risk to everyone. We need to as a general public, figure out a way to address these problems.

Further Reading:
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/01/california-stud/
http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_waronscience/

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