The Great Vaccine Debate

20 10 2009

Childhood vaccination is a hot topic constantly cropping up in our newspapers and on our television screens. Interestingly, although I don’t work in vaccine research, I’ve noticed that the subject is often brought up by fellow scientists – perhaps health scares and misinformation surrounding vaccine safety represent the big struggle between science and some branches of the media. The issue has become the controversy of the moment, and arguably an easy target for sensationalist journalism.

Every year thousands of parents up and down the country have to make a decision about whether to vaccinate their child against a myriad of infectious diseases. In the UK we’re not forced into this, unlike many other places across the globe. In the USA and many European countries, children are not allowed to start school until they’ve had their shots, and in Belgium failure to vaccinate your child could even land you in prison.

We should be proud of our attitude towards individual choice, and as long as enough people decide to go ahead we don’t have a problem. But if scare stories continue and parents become increasingly hesitant, we could get dangerously close to falling below that important watershed where major disease epidemics become a reality. I am not suggesting that we introduce compulsory vaccination, nor that parents are not entitled to make an informed decision about the health of their child. Instead, I propose that the scientific community should sit up and make itself heard; we must ensure that the debate is fair and balanced, and that information reaching parents truly reflects the risks.

Advertising campaigns for vaccination campaigns past and present

Advertising for vaccination campaigns past and present

Vaccination in the news

At the end of September we were inundated with media reports of the tragic news that a 14 year old girl in Coventry had died shortly after receiving the cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix. The day after the news broke I was on the bus to work and read a report in The Metro over the shoulder of another passenger. I was surprised to read that apparently “the death has raised questions about the safety of the vaccine, the secrecy surrounding clinical trials and why Britain has chosen a different type to most other countries”. In just one sentence – bam – the journalist had put serious doubt into the mind of every parent reading. It seemed to me ridiculous to even hint at such serious claims before post-mortem investigations had been performed.

Tabloid newspapers are known for their sensational headlines, but are they based out sounds scientific backing?

Tabloid newspapers are known for their sensational headlines, but are they based out sound scientific backing?

It was sadly discovered that the school pupil had died as a result of an undiagnosed tumour, a fact that was fairly widely reported. But the notion of conspiracy by the government and pharmaceutical industry had once again been brought to public attention. These reports have added to a growing list of apparent concerns about vaccine safety, even if only subconsciously.

At the top of this list is the MMR vaccine, following the 1998 paper published by Dr Andrew Wakefield suggesting a link between this jab and autism. The case made in the paper was weak even at the time of publication and ten of the paper’s 13 authors now refute the original findings. Several subsequent studies, each more extensive and rigorous than Wakefield’s, have completely failed to reach the same conclusions. (For an excellent review of this issue, follow the links provided by Sense About Science on their website www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/143/). But none of this seems to have made it to the front page of a national newspaper, and much of the public mistakenly believe there is an ongoing debate with no clear conclusions.

All part of a greater problem?

Is this attitude part of a much bigger problem? Have the Great British public stopped trusting scientists? People seem to question the motives not only of the researchers, but also of the policy makers who decide on the best way to implement their findings.

I have been fortunate enough to work with a number of respected scientists over the last few years, many of whom have dedicated their lives to studying the bugs and diseases that cause illness and death around the world. I’m sorry to disappoint any wannabe tabloid journalists looking for a scoop, but not one of them fits the stereotype frequently portrayed in media reports. The world of medical research is not populated by fame-hungry or shady characters, willing to make up results or endanger lives by ignoring side affects in medical trials, just to build up their bank balance or have their 5 minutes of fame.

So what is the answer to this growing problem? Can we halt the gradual erosion of public confidence in scientific research, and particularly in vaccination? Perhaps the answer is to get out there and improve public knowledge about the principles of scientific rigour, peer review, and medical trials. As scientists we should not sit tight in our academic bubble, perhaps knowing right from wrong (or, at least, having an opinion based on sound scientific reasoning) but failing to share this with the people out there in the real world.

Sense About Science - promoting good science and evidence for the public

Sense about Science are a fine example of a group striving to do just that, debunking myths about everything from food additives and detox diets to nuclear energy. We merry band of geeks in the world of research should jump on the bandwagon, joining them or at least following their example. Maybe then we can change the image portrayed in the popular press, rebuild public confidence in science and help people to realise that scientific discoveries are changing lives for the better.

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Talking Evolution at The British Science Festival

18 10 2009

It’s Thursday night and I’m standing in a student bar in Guildford.  I have just witnessed a man on stage have his chest and nose hair pulled out with tweezers, allegedly illustrating a point about pain receptors. Next the author Bill Bryson takes to the stage to discuss his popular science book ‘a short history of nearly everything’. Enjoying a drink at the table next to me is the moustachioed scientist Professor Robert Winston, who intercepts the roving microphone to ask Bill his opinion on school science lessons. “Not your average Thursday night”, you might say.  Unless, of course, you are at the British Science Festival, an annual gathering where over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and speakers meet to discuss the latest scientific developments with more than 50,000 members of the public.

The British Science Association (formerly known as the BA) has been holding its annual festival for no less than 178 years.  The festival is one of many ways the association achieves its aim to ‘connect science with people’, and has provided a platform for numerous scientific announcements from the first use of the term ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, to the demonstration of wireless transmission in 1894.  Stephen Hawking gave his first public talk at the 1982 festival in Liverpool.  So how did I, a PhD student from Edinburgh, get involved with the 2009 event? Back in March an email landed in my inbox about a competition called Perspectives.  The ‘poster session with a difference’ invited researchers to explore the social and ethical implications of their work and gain valuable experience in public engagement.

Perspectives at the British Science Festival

Perspectives at the British Science Festival

I submitted a piece of writing designed to enlighten a non-specialist audience about the fascinating world of chickens and bacteria, and was lucky enough to be shortlisted as a finalist.  A few months later, along with 35 other PhD students and post-doctoral researchers from across the UK, I travelled down to the Dana Centre in London for training in science communication and poster design.  Armed with new-found skills and enthusiasm for the task in hand, we set off back to our universities and institutes to work on our posters, which were unveiled when we arrived in Guildford for the festival in September.

Visitors to our hall of posters ranged from scientists and engineers to journalists and politicians, including the science minister Lord Drayson.  Several families and school groups also passed through, and I was approached by an inquisitive young student with a dislike for chicken burgers.  She was keen to persuade her mum to stop cooking them for her dinner, and thought that a bit of scientific backing would help her on this mission.

Enlightening the judges about the wonderful world of chickens and bacteria

Enlightening the judges about the wonderful world of chickens and bacteria

Away from poster duties, we also had time to attend some of the talks and events taking place.  An interesting session called ‘pest wars’ discussed the evolutionary arms race raging in our fields, between insects and the pesticides we’re using to combat them.  The scientists behind the research later held a press conference, as did several of the most prominent speakers at the festival, covering hot topics such as global food shortages and pandemic flu management.  This allowed journalists to quiz the scientists on issues of interest to their readers, and were clearly fruitful if the expanse of newspaper clippings pinned to boards in the media zone were anything to go by.

Evening events also provided science-related entertainment.  Robert Winston no doubt gained a few fans when he stated that “PhD students are the backbone of scientific research”, in a chat show style interview conducted by eminent physicist Jim Al-Khalili. The Chancellors Bar at the heart of Surrey University campus played host to a more light-hearted event called ‘X-change’, a daily round up of festival highlights compered by enthusiastic science writer and BBC broadcaster Sue Nelson.  In addition to the aforementioned nose hair plucking, the audience learned about the dangers of licking metal poles in the Antarctic, how to build a racing car using chocolate and carrots, and the anatomical accuracy (or otherwise) of drug smuggling capacity detailed in the books of crime writer Stuart MacBride.

Professor Robert Winston - The Man Behind the Moustache

Professor Robert Winston - The Man Behind the Moustache

Returning to the competition, our third day at the festival was spent talking to a panel of expert judges from the world of science communication.  They posed plenty of challenging but very interesting questions, prompting in-depth discussion all round.  Gemma Webster from the University of Dundee was the deserving winner with her poster ‘What’s in a label?’ about her research into dementia and the elderly.  I was delighted to be one of five runners up, and left Guildford at the end of the week glad to have taken part.  Perspectives provided an opportunity to talk about my work to a completely different audience and to meet a whole host of interesting people, all enthusiastic about their research and keen to spread the word about the wonders of science.

The 2010 festival is being held in Birmingham at Aston University, and will no doubt have plenty of interesting speakers and exciting events to get involved with.  My one piece of advice – if you find yourself in the front row when a biologist asks for a ‘particularly hairy volunteer’ for his experiment on pain receptors, it may be wise to keep quiet.

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This is an early version of a piece that appeared in the 5th edition of the EUSci magazine. Feel free to take a look at the finished article, and the rest of the magazine at www.eusci.org

Also, check out the following links to find out more about the festival and the competition:

Perspectives competition – http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/ScienceinSociety/Perspectives/

British Science Festival – www.britishsciencefestival.org

British Science Association – www.britishscienceassociation.org

Sue Nelson’s blog from the festival –  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8240096.stm

British Science Festival blog – http://britishsciencefestival.wordpress.com/