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Poynted remarks

Our columnist takes on the anti-vaxxers

Experts – who needs ‘em? One of my favourite pastimes is reading Facebook posts on vaccinations. It’s always entertaining. For the record, these are posts that are pro-science not anti. Quite why ‘anti-vaxxers’ would want to be following a science FB page such as ‘Neuroscience News and Research’, I can’t imagine.

Now don’t get me wrong, a healthy scepticism is essential.

Part of the difficulty is the healthcare system in the US. It’s a real profit-making industry, healthcare in the US, so there’s considerable mistrust of professionals who appear to be in it for the money. Funnily enough, that mistrust doesn’t seem to apply to the food industry, also in it for the money, or banking, or insurance. Somehow, if they’re producing something you might want, or need, you can ignore the profits made and go ahead and buy. Vaccinations are ‘optional’, so some are opting out.

Not being in favour of coercion, I would prefer people to realise the value of beneficial science (not all science is beneficial, science has created a lot of weaponry), whether it’s vaccinations or suggestions that if we exercised more and ate more vegetables, we’d live longer healthier lives.

None of these things should be compulsory. Deciding to eat yourself to an early grave is a choice which affects you and your immediate family.

Deciding to not vaccinate your child could well impact on a lot more people including people you don’t know and just pass on the street (or in school), particularly newborns and people whose immune systems are compromised.

It is true that ‘Big Pharma’ does make a lot of money. But then so does Microsoft and here I am on a computer using their products. The pharmaceutical industry does need a bit of a reform (‘nationalise it’ said my dad) and checks and controls. (See Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre). This doesn’t mean everything it produces should be avoided.

If an anti-vaxxer’s child contracted a serious illness, leukaemia maybe, would they boycott ‘Big Pharma’ treatments? That would probably be grounds for a child protection order. No, they probably wouldn’t, arguing that not vaccinating is not the same thing, and it isn’t.

However, my daughter will avoid erythromycin for the rest of her life because of an allergic reaction to it, but she wouldn’t avoid any other antibiotics and certainly would never seek to persuade others to do the same.

There needs to be a greater understanding of science. Chemicals especially. (How often do you see a claim that something is ‘free of chemicals’? So it’s a vacuum you’re selling there, then?) Scientists do not add elemental (ie liquid) mercury to injections. Thimerosal is added to some vaccinations as a preservative. It’s a compound of mercury added as an antiseptic and antifungal agent.

Being concerned about ‘mercury in vaccinations’ would be a bit like being worried about adding sodium (highly reactive) and chlorine (poisonous in high quantities) to your dinner when scattering common salt on it. Nevertheless, thimerosal is no longer added to routine children’s vaccinations in the EU and the USA, even though there appears little evidence that it’s harmful in the small doses involved.

However, every time a story on vaccination appears, there’s always someone (lots of someones) who says ‘I’m not putting mercury in my child…’ even though most injections don’t and even if they do contain thimerosal, it’s still not ‘mercury’. There’s always someone who says, ‘how does it affect you if I don’t get my child vaccinated?’

There’s always someone who says: ‘Well, my neighbour’s child developed autism right after the vaccinations’ as if correlation equals causation or an anecdote is evidence.

This really is a plea for better science education and a basic understanding of statistical analysis. Or just wiser use of the internet.