Sunday, July 01, 2012

Weekend Post - Vaccinating against intelligence

Intelligence is dangerous. What’s more dangerous is skepticism. Worst of all is the combination of both.

It’s not that knowing more about the world and questioning received wisdom will directly threaten you but it they will both expose you to things that you might not want to experience. Things like uncertainty, doubt and the acceptance of ignorance. The nature of science, the primary tool used by skeptical, intelligent people to conquer ignorance, is that it’s incomplete. There are things we don’t know, at least not yet. One day we will. We’ll know whether dark matter and dark energy exist, we’ll know whether string theory does indeed reconcile relativity and quantum theory, we’ll even know why combi drivers drive the way they do. One day.

But some things we DO know. There are things we know for sure, about which there is absolutely no doubt. Gravity exists and we now have a very good theory that explains it. Evolution happened, is still happening and will continue to happen and we have theories that explain it very well. More practically we know for sure that vaccinations work, they protect us against dreaded diseases and they’ve extended our lifespans enormously. That’s why it’s horrible to hear of cases of resistance to vaccination. Earlier this month the Pakistani Express Tribune reported on objections to an anti-polio vaccination campaign in the Punjab region of Pakistan:
“When the local cleric, Maulvi Ibrahim Chisti found out about the campaign, he immediately went to the biggest mosque in the area and declared that polio drops are ‘poison’ and against Islam. He added that if the polio team forced anybody to partake in the vaccination campaign, then Jihad was ‘the only option’.”
Clearly this particular religious leader is an idiot. As a result of idiocy like this, the Indian Express reported that polio is back.
“Eight cases were detected in the Khyber tribal region. Polio cases have also been reported in areas like Rajanpur district of Punjab and Larkana district of Sindh that were free of the virus since 2004-05.”
It’s not often that progress is actually overturned and the forces of idiocy drive us back into the Middle Ages. With a little luck the pragmatic Pakistani authorities will enforce some reason and rationality and Pakistani kids can live life with one fewer threat to their health.

However it’s not just the ignorant that oppose vaccination.

In the UK in 1998 a doctor called Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study in The Lancet incorrectly suggesting that there was a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. He even invented a fictitious medical condition that he called “autistic enterocolitis”.

This caused a major panic in the UK that spread worldwide. Unfortunately it took many years to fully expose Wakefield as a fraud. In 2004 the UK Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer revealed Wakefield’s fixing of experimental results, his improper and unethical treatment of children and his corrupt financial interests. Faced with this The Lancet fully retracted the article and the UK’s General Medical Council formally investigated Wakefield’s conduct. They were so horrified by his conduct that he was struck off the medical register in disgrace. There were even calls for him to be prosecuted.

But the damage was done. MMR vaccination rates dropped significantly. In the UK the vaccination rate dropped from 90% to 73%. In the USA more cases of measles occurred in 1998, following the reports, than had occurred in the decade beforehand. Obviously nobody can prove this beyond doubt but it’s likely that Wakefield’s activities killed children.

The fascinating but dreadful news is that despite Wakefield and his ideas being completely discredited, despite every single piece of evidence showing that childhood vaccination is a life-saver, vaccination levels in the developed world haven’t recovered. Worse still we can’t make the easy assumption that the parents of the non-vaccinated children are all stupid. In fact according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, unvaccinated children in the USA were more likely:
“to belong to households with higher income, to have a married mother with a college education, and to live with four or more children”.
The irony is that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to protect your children’s health. Part of this is undoubtedly the higher levels of curiosity that intelligent and educated parents are likely to express. In particular smart people (like readers of the Weekend Post!) are more likely to surf the web to research important decisions. The problem is that the Internet is filled to the brim with a mixture of lunacy, idiocy and lies. That’s if you can avoid the porn and celebrity gossip. The pseudoscience available on the Internet is dangerously prevalent.

Many examples of progress are mixed. While nuclear power is the safest way to produce electricity we all find radiation scary. The internal combustion and jet engines have each made travel easier but they bring pollution. The internet can be wonderfully empowering but it’s full of garbage.

Vaccination is an exception. It’s saved and prolonged everyone’s life and there is virtually no downside to it. The terrible irony is that the greatest threat this remarkable bit of scientific progress faces is the very same intelligence that created it.

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