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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