Friday, May 10, 2019

Anti-Vaccination myths cost lives.

There has been a fair amount of debate in the last two weeks about the harm done by anti-vaccination propaganda as a number of preventable diseases which were until recently being prevented have started to make a comeback.

Not every vaccination is appropriate for every patient and it is necessary and ought to be possible for a mature democracy to have a grown-up and nuanced debate about this. But those people who say that Anti-Vaccination myths are costing lives are right.

Earlier this year, the Word Health Organisation reported that measles caused the premature death of 72 children and adults in the European region in 2018,

That's 72 avoidable tragedies. Very young children and a small number of other people should not take the measles vaccine but if 95% of those aged over five in every community were immune from measles through vaccination or being a survivor of the disease it would rapidly go the way of smallpox.

It is not unreasonable to conclude without Anti-Vaccination myths and propaganda some if not all of those 72 people might still be alive today and that those who spread these myths may have helped to cause those deaths.

I do not think the time has come for emergency measures such as compulsory vaccination or routinely banning unvaccinated children from school, but I do think we have reached the point where schools should have the power to require parents who have not vaccinated their children to keep them out of school, for their own protection and that of other children, in particular circumstances such as when there is a local measles outbreak.

I think it is worth a reminder of the 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.

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. Anyone who has concerns about the safety of vaccination can and should discuss those concerns with their doctor.

It is however, important to recognise that 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.

I regret to say that one of the actors spreading Anti-Vax propaganda in the West and making such a debate infinitely more difficult is the Russian state through their bots and trolls

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 the Russian government has been 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 the 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 despicable.

To any parents who are concerned about the safety of their child and wants to know what treatment is best for him or her, I would say, do not rely on what you hear on social media or what friends and neighbours say, seek advice from your doctor who can tell you what is best from your child based on expert knowledge.


Jim said...

I once almost choked to death while eating food. I did my own research and discovered that I am not alone. Thousands of people choke every year whilst eating, and many of them die. That is why I have decided not to feed my kids, its too dangerous. Plenty of people, of course, will point out that food allegedly "prevents starvation", which may be kind of true, but its not at all fair to ignore all the dangers of food, like choking, allergies, gingivitis, and of course garlic breath. I'm just asking you to get on you tube and do your own research and decide what is best for your kids. If you then decide to give your kids potentially live ending food that is your choice. Though as a parent I don't think the government has any right to tell me I need to feed my kids.

Chris Whiteside said...

Unfortunately that's probably too clever for some of the people we need to get through to.

Though it does remind me of the experiment in which a couple of academics showed that you could persuade a very high proportion of respondents to agree that there ought to be a ban or at least stringent government restrictions on "Oxygen Dihydride" by listing some of the potential health and safety risks associated with water without making it clear that they were talking about water.