These are all reasonable questions. But then, very quietly, there was the other question: How does she feel about ... vaccinations?
It turned out that quite a number of our friends -- including some exceptionally smart, loving and otherwise responsible parents -- were dead set against providing their children with the usual gantlet of shots in the bottom. Since these shots are required by the school system, this meant finding doctors who would follow the old proposal to "let's not, and say we did." In other words, they needed doctors who would fake the paperwork.
We didn't choose one of those doctors. Quite the contrary. When we delicately broached the subject with out pediatrician, he gave us a long and very unhappy speech on why Phil Donahue was killing babies. (As older parents, we had some idea who Phil Donahue had been, but we wondered whether he shouldn't update his speech to include Jenny McCarthy or Robert Kennedy Jr). The key thing was that he also mentioned something we had come across ourselves, a massive study in Denmark which disproved the supposed link between MMR vaccines and autism.
As we looked into the question, two important points came through to us: (1) that the anti-vaccine crowd was passionate, but seemed to have more anecdotal than statistical evidence; and (2) that, as in most matters of public health, it is important that everybody take part in the preventive measures. To really keep a neighborhood safe from measles, mumps or rubella, it isn't enough to just give your own kid the (partial) protection of a vaccine; everybody else has to do likewise. Which means that the anti-vaccine types, and the doctors who enable their fraud, are not just putting their own kids at risk, but everybody else's, too.
Comes now this series of articles in the British Medical Journal, which for some irritating reason prefers to call itself merely BMJ. It's disturbing stuff.
One of the main scientific supports of the anti-vaccine movement was a 1998 Lancet paper by Andrew Wakefield and numerous other authors. It claimed to find strong evidence of a correlation between vaccines and developmental disabilities, and "triggered a decade-long public health scare." It was based on a small group -- 12 patients, versus the half-million in the Danish study. But still, it was science. And in the Lancet.
It was also completely bogus. Fake, phony, fraudulent.
Reporter Brian Deer describes his investigation into the paper, which resulted in its retraction by the Lancet and disavowal by 1o of the 12 authors. To make a long story short, he found that the evidence was reported selectively and inaccurately. As the BMJ editors describe it:
Prince of a guy, right? And yet he keeps going: "... although now disgraced and stripped of his clinical and academic credentials, he continues to push his views." And some people still listen. We imagine it's analogous to the occasional clergyman who, caught in some massive indiscretion, simply denies any guilt and counts on the irrational confidence placed in him by his well-conditioned followers.
Here's why it matters:
Although vaccination rates in the United Kingdom have recovered slightly from their 80% low in 2003-4, they are still below the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure herd immunity. In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently unprotected as a result of the scare, and the battle to restore parents’ trust in the vaccine is ongoing.
The situation in the US may be different, but experience makes us wonder how different. And when the coverage isn't adequate, kids get sick. Measles, mumps and rubella are all serious. They can lead to pneumonia, brain damage, birth defects, even death. The CDC reports hundreds of preventable deaths and thousands of preventable illnesses every year because parents have been frightened by bad science.