Saturday, August 25, 2018

Of Bots, Ballots, Babies and Bugs

The British people and the Russian people are not enemies. Over the past two hundred and fifty years we have stood together more often than not, including in both the great wars of the 20th century. British soldiers, sailors and aircrew have fought alongside those of Russia against tyrants and dictators from Napoleon to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

In World War II in particular the Russian people made enormous sacrifices to defeat possibly the most evil cause in history, that of the Nazi regime - and it is sadly all too often forgotten that thousands of British sailors risked their lives in horrible and very dangerous conditions to get supplies to Murmansk to help the Russian people in that struggle. I had an uncle who was a radio officer on a merchant ship on that convoy route.

But although there is no good reason why Britain and Russia should be enemies and I absolutely refute any suggestion that we have done anything since the end of the original cold war to justify Russian enmity, the sad fact is that Russia's President Vladimir Putin has chosen to make an enemy of every nation in the west, particularly Britain. It would appear that he seeks to disguise Russia's relative decline in power and influence by trying weaken and destabilise his neighbours.

For all practical purposes Putin has chosen to start a new cold war in which he has done everything short of starting World War III to destabilise the West. The overwhelming balance of evidence suggests that Russian actions have included at least two murders and at least two more attempted murders on British soil using chemical weapons. Putin's armed forces have bombed hospitals and schools in Syria, and his propagandists have put at risk the lives of heroic local rescue volunteers by falsely labelling them as associates of DA'ESH.

Putin broke the assurances given to Ukraine to respect their territorial integrity if they gave up nuclear weapons - probably thereby ensuring that no nation will ever voluntarily give up nukes again unless they elect a government of complete nutcases - by stealing the Crimea and starting a war in Eastern Ukraine.

Evidence, quote, "which would stand up in court," unquote, suggests that it was a BUK 9M38 Surface to Air Missile from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade which shot down Malaysian airlines flight MH17 during that conflict, causing the deaths of 298 innocent civilians including eighty children and ten British citizens.

I'm prepared to consider the possibility that this was criminal negligence from incompetent and irresponsible idiots who thought they were shooting down an enemy military aircraft rather than women and children, but in that case any regime with an atom of integrity would have helped bring those responsible to justice rather than put out a pack of lies and conspiracy theories to try to blame anyone else for the tragedy.

I don't personally believe it likely that Russian meddling in the EU referendum, or the last US Presidential election, actually changed the result, they certainly didn't manage to get Jeremy Corbyn elected PM when they attempted to interfere in the last UK General election, but again, the balance of evidence is that Russian bots did meddle in all three elections and in all three cases managed to cause trouble and undermine confidence in the results, and if their aim was to damage the UK and the USA the Putin administration probably regards that as a success.

Only one of the charges I have made above is proven beyond any possible doubt, but several more would be tested in court if the Putin regime allowed the suspects to be extradited to face trial, and there is substantial evidence is support of everything I have written. If the overall pattern of behaviour is considered I believe it is impossible for a reasonable and well-informed person to avoid the conclusion that Putin's Russia is a rogue state which is trying to destabilise the West.

While I was attending an NHS conference earlier this year I heard of another aspect of the Putin regime's attempt to damage Western countries which hit the press this week. That is Russia's attempt to undermine confidence in vaccination programmes by programming their bots to repeat damaging lies about vaccination.

This is all the more damaging because a healthy democracy needs to be able to have robust debate about the effectiveness of vaccination programmes like any other aspect of health policy. There are particular patients who may have an adverse reaction to specific vaccinations; they are usually a small minority but they do exist.

There is overwhelming evidence that the majority of vaccination programmes have between them saved millions of people from premature death, improved the quality of life for millions more and massively improved public health.

In particular, vaccination programmes are one of the main reasons that infant and child mortality was massively reduced in Britain in the 20th century. For example, five diseases in particular - pneumonia, tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles and whooping cough - between them used to kill in infancy more than a quarter of babies born alive a hundred years ago, and tens of thousands more in childhood. Between the second decade of the last century and the 1970's, infant and child death rates from these diseases had been dropped by a factor of more than ten for pneumonia and factors in the hundreds for the others, with antibiotics and vaccination the most important among a range of improvements in healthcare which drove these improvements.

Overall in England and Wales between 1901 and 1974, infant mortality dropped by 91% and child mortality at ages 1 to 14 by 94%. (Source: Office of Health Economics report 1975.)

I have quoted the figures for the drop in mortality between the early 20th century and the 1970s because, although vaccination was discovered and it's benefits proved to the scientific community by Sir Edward Jenner in 1796, it was in the 1920's that vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and tuberculosis (TB) became widely available and widely used, and therefore it is in the 50 years from that decade that very widespread vaccination is likely to have made it's greatest contribution to the reduction in infant and child mortality.

Between 1956 and 1980 a programme of vaccination by the World Health Organisation eradicated smallpox - one of the greatest achievements in the history of medicine.

It is the view of many medical professionals - and the NHS - that vaccination has saved more lives than any other medical product or procedure.

The belief that vaccination has saved millions and millions of lives and done vastly more good than harm is perfectly consistent with recognising that not every vaccination is the right prescription for every patient and accepting that a proper, grown-up and honest discussion of the impact of vaccines needs to be possible.

There is nothing more calculated to destroy the possibility of any such grown-up and honest debate than a hostile power employing state trolls and programming robots to pump out thousands of anti-vaccination messages on social media to sabotage public health in the USA and Britain, and that, I'm afraid, is one of the things Russian-controlled bots and trolls are now doing.

As the public health official in Cumbria who told me about this latest piece of Russian sabotage said to me, one of the nastier things which can damage the economy of a rival country is a severe flu epidemic.

Scientists at George Washington University in the USA have published a report about anti-vaccination messages, and indeed, pro-vaccine messages written in a divisive way and designed to poison the argument, which they traced back to Russian social media accounts. Their conclusions were reported in yesterday's Guardian as you can read here, and by the BBC as you can read here.

I'm told that these bots have also "piled on" to people in Britain who tweeted anything positive about vaccination - parents who mentioned online that they have been or taken their kids for a jab have found themselves subject to twitterstorms and when investigated the attacking messages have been traced back to Russian-registered social media accounts.

Of the many contemptible things of which the Putin regime is guilty, trying to trick concerned parents into withholding from their infants a treatment which has saved the lives of millions of other children is one of the most egregiously despicable.

I have two conclusions from this.

1) Anyone in Britain, whether they are on the UKIP right, Corbynista left or any other part of the political spectrum who has still not woken up to the fact that Russia under the present leadership of that country is for all intents and purposes a hostile power needs to do so.

2) Anyone who is seeking information about vaccine safety should treat anything they read on social media on the subject with extreme caution unless they know exactly where it came from. Talk to your own doctor or genuine experts whose identity you know and whose interest is your good health.

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