Archive for wired

Vaccine Panic – Don’t Blame The Mums!

Posted in complaints, science with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by lesmonde

In recent months, vaccine panic has arguably supplanted the eternal Evolution vs Creationism debate and global warming as the cause célèbre of the sceptical community. For those not au fait with the issue: there is a growing and increasingly vocal community of self-styled “anti-vaxxers” who have decided, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, that vaccination programmes are a danger to health and long-term wellbeing, particularly of children. Opposition to vaccination ranges from mild trepidation, to the belief that mass vaccination is a systematic attempt at specicide by the “New World Order” to reduce global population. I’m not kidding.

The issue came to the fore with the publication by the now notorious (or heroic, I suppose, depending on which side of the needle you fall) Dr Andrew Wakefield of a paper in The Lancet purporting to have identified a possible connection between autism, bowel disease, and the MMR vaccination. The paper itself was unremarkable and inconclusive, but Wakefield’s subsequent interactions with the press, in which he advised caution against the MMR vaccine ignited a national health scare during which uptake dropped to as little as 61% in some parts of the UK and saw measles return to the UK as an endemic disease. Wakefield’s study has now been discredited and renounced by the majority of his co-authors, and the evidence that vaccination causes neither autism nor any other long-term health problem in anything other than negligible numbers is vast and overwhelming. Yet the controversy continues to be perpetuated.

In the last few days Wired magazine has published an excellent article by journalist Amy Wallace which tackles some of the frothing irrationality surrounding vaccination and its spurious link to autism. The article has inflicted upon Wallace a not insignificant and often unpleasant or indignant e-mail response, which she is currently tackling on her twitter. What’s interesting is that a large amount, if not all, of the negative feedback is coming from parents. Either the parents of young children, or the parents of children with autism. The protests are poignant:

“The PARENT knows their child more than anyone in the world. The PARENTS, Ms. Wallace, NOT Mr. Offit.”

“I have a Son that needs Me – not another needle.”

“Me and mine are not a herd. Human beings are capable and entitled to decide for themselves what to put in our bodies.”

These are parents who feel the need to defend themselves from the accusations of irresponsibility in their decision not to vaccinate. And the implied irresponsibility is sharp: Wallace’s article points out that, as vaccination uptake drops and herd immunity slips away from communities, children are now dying from preventable diseases. Often the accusations are explicit. As Jenny McCarthy, mother of an autistic child, crusades against vaccinations in the US, so a website has appeared, the controversial but pertinent Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which counts the number of cases of and deaths from diseases which, until the recent panic, had become little more than curiosities and links them explicitly to McCarthy’s high profile campaign. It’s little surprise that such indictments provoke fierce defence.

But the blame doesn’t lie at the feet of the parents. It doesn’t lie at the feet of Jenny McCarthy. Parents, by and large, cannot conceive of taking any action which will cause their child to come to harm. Charged by all their instincts to protect their child, the choice between “X causes immediate harm” and “X causes no immediate and direct harm”, when X is something they don’t fully understand, is a no-brainer. The consequences of ignoring the first appear direct and causal, the consequences of ignoring the second are far less cut and dried to the majority who understandably have little knowledge of epidemiology and immunology. In the light of the mountain of evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, this is not a rational approach, but is it really fair to point the finger at parents who act irrationally in the interests of the wellbeing of their children? I don’t think it is.

The complaints from parents, vilified by these remote and unapproachable journalists and scientists, that they “only want to do the best for their children” are deeply understandable. This motivation cannot be credibly denied. It’s the press that’s to blame for the current debacle; the press who published with neither appreciation of the facts nor care for the consequences; the press who give a voice to the charismatically irrational. The press made this the issue that it is and, where the wellbeing of children is concerned, that’s a beast that’s hard to get back into the box.