My very talented friend and MIT classmate Joseph Calamia is doing some great science blogging over at Discover Magazine.
Some recent highlights:
It’s mostly likely too little and certainly too late but today Britain’s General Medical Council announced that they had banned Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the man who propagated the erroneous autism-vaccine link, from practicing medicine in the UK. A meager punishment for a man who is likely responsible for the death of an untold number of children and others. It’s more symbolically satisfying than anything else, striking his name from the registry, but at least it’s something. You can’t charge someone with murder on account of spreading bad science (too bad).
If you look at the original abstract, it’s pretty shocking that the Lancet even published the paper in the first place, a paper based on nothing but vague anecdotal conclusions. A quick lesson in statistics: when n=12, you could be on to something, but your results should most definitely not be taken as gospel.
What irks me the most about this whole mess (and as irked me for quite some time, I’ve been itching to write this post) is not that Dr. Wakefield was wrong or that he defended his wrong conclusions. It’s not his egregious research or clinical practices either. What really makes me angry, is the incredible damage he did to the concept of vaccination, a simple and elegant medical discovery that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives all over the world. A practice that, I think, is very much worth any of it’s actual risks.
From the Wall Street Journal: “Dr. Wakefield’s 1998 study of 12 children triggered worry among parents world-wide that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Many decided not to immunize their children, leading to outbreaks of measles in some Western countries. As many as 2.1% of children in the U.S. weren’t immunized with the MMR vaccine in 2000, up from 0.77% in 1995, according to a 2008 study published in Pediatrics.”
In the wake of this “discovery” and some major misuse of the celebrity bully pulpit by Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey (say it ain’t so Jimmy!), vaccination somehow became a matter of personal preference, like deciding whether or not to get a haircut. But the problem with that is that it’s not just about making a personal choice for your children.The reason is simple: these are contagious diseases (many of them highly contagious)! A child that contracts measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, the flu, etc. will, in most cases, be fine. Yet this child could easily pass the viruses on to high-risk patients; they could give the flu to a child with severe asthma, could give chicken pox to a child with severe eczema or shingles to an older adult that’s never been exposed. The harm in avoiding vaccines is not just in the risk to your child, it’s about the others that they may pass germs on to if they get sick. To refuse them without good reason is an act of selfishness.
It’s a funny thing to think about it, but it’s true. Every year, for example, about 36,000 people die of flu-related causes. And each of those people caught it from someone else, and they got it from someone else and so on down the line, maybe all the way to you. So, what’s the harm? You didn’t need the vaccine.
But it’s not just about you.