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.
Well, here it is. After much delay, no shortage of nastiness, death panels, abortion, a public option, then no public option, more or less 100% partisanship, a lot of lofty promises and grand rhetoric, and a little bit of bribery, we have universal healthcare.
What better day to finally kick off a little bit a blogging?
As someone who follows healthcare reform with a good amount of regularity, I’m embarrassed to admit that I still don’t have a good idea what will come of this. However, at 400,000 words give or take, I’m willing to bet that no individual politician really knows either. What’s more, it’s hard to say what the final reforms will actually look like once they are in practice rather than on paper.
Even sitting here in the bluest of blue states with Teddy smiling down (maybe), it’s hard to be entirely happy with the result. The whole process revealed how infuriating the legislative process can be at times. Whether you wish the bill had accomplished more (Dems) or you think it’s a sign of the apocalypse (GOP), the whole thing has a bitter taste to it. But I, for one, plan to see the glass as 95% full. For all it’s flaws and disappointments, it’s hard to be mad at the idea of providing for 32 million Americans that previously did not have healthcare and instituting reforms that may affect many of us over the course of our lives, even if they don’t affect us right away.
Ultimately, despite many vague exclamations to the contrary, Republicans had very little to offer (except “nos” and “nays”, and let us not forget Joe Wilson’s classy outburst). It’s depressing really that the opposing side of the debate revolved primarily around, well, opposition. Healthcare spending is absolutely out of control and some how we still manage to come in near the bottom of the list in terms of outcomes. We also can claim the rather embarrassing distinction of being one of few first-world countries that does not offer universal health coverage (and we still won’t, for those paying attention).
See this map. The orange countries are ones with universal health care. You’ll notice that in addition to almost all of Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada and Australia, this also includes places like Saudi Arabia and Cuba. It’s about time that we caught up.
Doing nothing would have been a cardinal sin. For our economy, for our values, for our citizens, this is something that needed to happen. Now, you won’t lose your coverage if you get sick (which could easily happen) or be denied coverage if you have a pre-existing condition (which could also happen). Millions more Americans will be insured. For all the concerns about this (some legitimate and some not), it’s hard not to see the good that is at the core of this effort. Happy Healthcare Day, America.
I’ve posted all my work from this semester in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. There’s some pretty good stuff, even if you aren’t a science nerd like me: weather modification, skyscrapers and healthcare IT. Check it out in the “Articles” tab. I’ve also got a bunch of other things posted now including short stories from my semester with Junot Diaz, a few YouTube videos and other links. Now I just need the mental focus to post regularly…