The Needle and the Damage Done

23 March 2015

Do you remember when you were a child and climate change was still referred to as ‘global warming’? The term climate change became more widely used while ‘global warming’ was adopted by climate change deniers in order to argue their scientifically inaccurate points. They couldn’t wrap their heads around a concept called global ‘warming’ that also results in colder winters. Science explains global warming as creating extremes in weather that can result in hotter summers and colder winters, escalating in severity depending on which country you live in. Donald Trump still calls it global warming and argues that it’s a myth because he’s cold.

There are many proponents of the anti-science movement, including climate change deniers, promoters of certain alternative medicines, creationists, and more. There is a stereotype that people who jump on the anti-science bandwagon are predominantly less educated individuals. Often viewed as conservative gun-advocates or highly religious home-schooled types, they are sometimes even associated with libertarian, anti-government militias. This is not necessarily accurate. Anti-science movements can span all education levels and political ideologies; encompassing all genders, races, ages and incomes. The notion of upper-middle class, progressive voters being immune to anti-science rhetoric can be best debunked by observing the growing anti-vaccination movement.

The anti-vaccination movement is currently attracting a lot of media attention, due largely to recent outbreaks of virtually eradicated diseases. A measles outbreak starting last December at Disneyland has further ignited the argument on whether vaccinations should be mandatory in the absence of valid med-ical reasons. Currently, all but two US states allow parents to opt out of vaccination on the grounds of religious or personal beliefs. Similarly in Australia, parents need only sign a form to get an exemption. The problem is that the number of people refusing vaccination is growing.

Vaccines work to protect a vast majority of the population through something called herd immunity. This occurs when populations are vaccinated at a proportion of 95% or higher, which prevents patho-gens from spreading effectively. This helps to protect vulnerable people who are unable to receive vaccinations. This includes the elderly, very young children, people with allergies and those who can not safely receive vaccines due to having medical illnesses. Herd immunity relies on high levels on vaccine compliance. However, the minority who choose not to vaccinate is growing large enough to threaten our most vulnerable citizens.

The unfortunate fact is the vast majority that make up this particular anti-science movement are upper middle-class, well intentioned (yet uninformed) parents. In Australia, a majority reside in affluent suburbs such as in Northcote, Thornbury and Fitzroy. In the US, it is the private schools throughout California with the lowest vaccination rates, thus resulting in the recent Disneyland outbreak.

Set to become a major public health issue, the question is, should people be allowed to make choices that risk other people’s health? Diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria and measles used to be major causes of death worldwide and smallpox has been globally eradicated since 1977, thanks to vaccines. Some parents are worried about the side effects of certain vaccines, specifically the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This is usually based upon a 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that has since been disproven and retracted. Wakefield was subsequently found guilty of professional misconduct and removed from the UK Medical Registrar. Doctors urge that the side effects from vaccines are in fact ex-tremely minimal and that the benefits substantially outweigh the risks. If any reasonable evidence suggested vaccinations were causing harm, it would only increase the budget for scientists to improve those vaccinations.

The World Health Organisation states that measles is still a leading cause of mortality for young children in many developing countries. There were around 145,700 deaths globally in 2013 – that’s about 400 per day. Most people who contract the disease in western countries are found to be unvaccinated. Out of the 42 people to initially contract measles at Disneyland, the vast majority had not received the MMR.

So why the distrust in science? One could argue that it stems from two things; the first is a lack of understanding of what science actually is. Science is inherently skeptical; its testing methods designed to find faults. It is never complete and always being revised – once new information is discovered, medical practice is adjusted to suit. People who are less scientifically literate may not understand scientific studies and unfortunately be deceived. An inability to understand something however, is not a valid argument against it. While it is easier to believe people’s personal experiences, they do not accurately prove anything. Anecdotes are unreliable sources of information, while peer-reviewed scientific journals are much more reliable.

The second reason is a lack of fact-checking, and this does not simply refer to anti-science movements. Remember when The Onion, a satirical news website, published an article naming Kim Jong Un the sexiest man alive and a Chinese newspaper ran the story? Or the other month when everyone thought the world’s oldest tree had been cut down? We live in a world of misinformation, and the internet can make things worse if we don’t distinguish fact from fiction. Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to be-lieve information that confirms their existing beliefs. This results in the spread of incorrect data, news and fictional statistics. There is a way around this. Before accepting something as fact, ask yourself where the sources are from. Who undertook the study? Is it a legitimate journalistic source? Where does it get its funding from? Furthermore, don’t get attached to a single position. Compare and contrast various points of view, because anything accurate and true will stand up to scrutiny.

If there is one thing we should take from the recent outbreaks of communicable diseases in western countries, it’s that ignorance is contagious. While the desire to critically analyse information and make independent decisions is a positive aspiration, it must be combined with a push for scientific accuracy. Otherwise these decisions will fail to be rational or evidence based. If the medical community agrees that these decisions are putting vulnerable groups at risk – then perhaps it’s time to question whether we should retain the right to make them.

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