Sunday, January 16, 2011

Loss of trust

I've tended to post MMR vaccine related stuff to my Disease Ecology blog (look here if you are interested) but Bruce suggested I post here about this week's news that Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues had faked some of the data behind their 1998 Lancet article that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine (for Measles, Mumps and Rubella) and a type of autism. To its credit the LA Times has always been on top of this story. Their latest story, from Thursday,  is, Autism-vaccine link debunked — too little, too late, a CNN story from Friday: Vaccine-autism researcher should be prosecuted

If you are not familiar with the case then it might sound like something of interest only to the medical community but nothing could be further from the truth.

By falsely discrediting a widely used vaccine Wakefield's work has led to a decreased vaccine uptake and a loss of herd immunity. This has led to disease outbreaks and actual deaths. The deaths are directly attributable to the actions of this man. There is a reason that Dante Alighieri reserved one of the deepest circles of hell for those that destroyed the trust that allows a society to function. (If you read Dante it seems odd to our modern sensibilities that forgers end up worse off than murderers but the argument is sound - a murderer kills one person, by destroying trust in society a forger or perjurer undermines society itself).

Bruce suggested I post this news here both as a commentary on honesty in science, and  also so that you are well pepared when someone tries to tell you  that vaccinations have been demonstrated to cause autism (which, trust me, they will). I'd add a third reason and that is that California, sadly, is ground zero for the anti-vaccine movement.

California is currently seeing a big increase in whooping cough cases - most likely the largest number of cases since 1955. Whooping cough is a nasty disease in children and the only good news is that it isn't measles which can be a real killer.

Many parents forgo vaccines for their children because of concerns about autism, typically fueled by misinformation on the Internet, said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a University of California-San Diego professor and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"We need to remember that vaccines are probably the biggest reason that so few of us lose our children when they are young," said Dr. Patricia Samuelson, speaking on behalf of the California Academy of Family Physicians. "They used to say in this country, 'Don't count your children until after they've had measles' because so many would die."

And that's my weekend rant. This whole topic makes me so mad that I can barely write about it. It isn't just the crimes of ex-Dr Wakefield that get to me but the complicity of much of the press. In an earlier blog post I commented on some of the newspaper headlines on an article that essentially was discrediting ex-Dr Wakefields work (ie showing NO link between the MMR vaccine and autism - New research further debunks any link between measles vaccine and autism, work that comes as the nation is experiencing a surge in measles cases fueled by children left unvaccinated.):

This science story was picked up by most news outlets as an item that would be of interest to their readership. A quick google news search suggests over 300 articles in the first few days alone. But, bearing in mind that many more people scan the headline than will read the article, let's look at some of the headlines.

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