Ive long worried about what I see as a sort of anti-science backlash worldwide. I covered this, in relation to climate change here and here. This week in Wales we saw the tragic consequences of this mistrust of science with an outbreak of measles and possibly the first death of that outbreak.
As always, our tale of anti-science follows a predictable formula. Step one is some dubious and disputed science (like climate change denial) and a complete misunderstanding of the public as to its implications. A few years back science papers were published that suggested that the MMR vaccine could be linked to various side effects, notably Autism. From the start, this was a controversial stance (note that its not the job of science journals to censor scientific papers, merely act as adjudicator and facilitators in a scientific debate). Further research cast doubt on these results (as well as a number of undeclared conflicts of interest on the part of the original researchers), eventually leading to the withdrawal of the previous research.
Unfortunately, some parents reacted by either delaying getting their children vaccinated, or didnt get them vaccinated at all. Some even allowed their kids to deliberately become infected with the disease. This may well have come about as they felt that Measles, Mumps and Rubella are benign diseases. Not so! While the majority of people who contract these illnesses suffer only mild symptoms, a certain number of people (about 3 in a 1,000) will suffer “serious complications” (sufficient to require hospitalisation) with the potential for brain damage, permanent disability and even death a possibility. Every year in the developing world, countries where a free MMR jab is not available (we dont know how lucky we are), tens of thousands of children die each year due to these illnesses (all told 158,000 people die each year worldwide from Measles alone!).
Now that a vaccine can have side effects is not unheard of. This is why we dont vaccinate against Smallpox anymore. The risk of catching it is so small (given that it only exists in a few labs these days), its not worth the risk involved in taking the vaccine. However for a live virus like the MMR trio, the tiny risk posed by the vaccine (millions to one against) has to be balanced against the much larger risk of the virus (measles has an infection rate of about 40-50% and as noted about 3 in 1,000 suffer complications). Youre literally a thousand times safer getting your kid vaccinated than taking your chances with the disease.
And like climate denial and creationism, the key promoters of the anti-MMR stance are the usual suspects. That being a mixture of pseudo-science homeopathic quackery (see Dara OBrians take on homeopathy here) and paranoid right wing (nuts).
Now as Ive said before, a healthy skepticism of authority is good in any democracy, but some on the right take this to a whole new level. They automatically assume that the government is constantly conspiring against them and that everything the government does is part of some megalomaniac agenda (granted the way the Tories are acting these days I know how they feel, but they take this a bit too far). Naturally the thought of letting some government sponsored doctor put a needle in their child fills them with dread (who knows the drug might make him smarter and hell become a liberal, gasp! 😉 ).
Of course the reality is that yes, the government does have an agenda. That of cutting down on infant mortality! They also recognize that vaccinating against a disease is vastly cheaper than having the NHS pick up the pieces after a pandemic starts. A cost I might add, that we as tax payers are paying for. And of course theres the cost to the economy of all those sickies people will be taking over the next few months.
If theres one thing to take away from this crisis, its the need to recognize that there is little point in us spending millions of pounds for scientists and doctors to give us their expert opinion if were not going to take it seriously. It was listening to the naysayers of the anti-science movement that put Europe into a six centuries long dark age after the fall of Rome.