Vaccine Scares in Europe. Or, excuse me while I rant about the importance of science for a bit.

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From today’s Globe and Mail (full article here):

KIEV, Ukraine — A widespread scare about vaccine side effects in Ukraine has led to a sharp drop in immunizations that could result in disease outbreaks spreading beyond the former Soviet republic, international and local health officials say.

Hundreds of thousands of fearful Ukrainians have refused vaccines for diseases such as diphtheria, mumps, polio, hepatitis B, tuberculosis, whooping cough and others this year, according to official estimates. Authorities have cancelled a UN-backed measles and rubella vaccination campaign funded by U.S. philanthropist Ted Turner, and will have to collect and incinerate nearly nine million unused doses in coming months.

“I never thought I’d see the day where perfectly good vaccines are being destroyed,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for UNICEF.

Two thoughts jump to mind. First, this is just one example of the importance of having a historical perspective in science. We are part of a generation that has never experienced infectious diseases in their full horror and devastation–in the Western world, at least–so as a group we do not fully comprehend the risks of losing our current herd immunity. Which is what will eventually happen if people keep refusing vaccinations.

The interesting thing is that we have records of what life was like before vaccinations–it wasn’t that long ago. My mom contracted polio when she was four. She is only one generation before me, and yet we have forgotten how wonderful the invention of the polio vaccine truly was. Arguably, some of the only global health aid initiatives that have had wide-spread, long-lasting positive consequences are the eradication of smallpox in the sixties and the wide-spread immunization effort currently underway to eliminate polio. 

There are risks to vaccination, yes. But the risk is 1 in 4 000 000, not 1 in 100. Which brings up another point.

Since when did science become a matter of belief? (I can’t help thinking of Goodyear as well).

Science is based on experimental evidence and data. The whole point of scientific experimentation is to continually attempt to disprove something in order to prove it false. Scientists do not publish articles outlining the case for evolution because they believe it is the right theory. They put it forth as a theory because there is piles of evidence to support it and not any of the other theories suggested by Darwin’s contemporaries. Similarly, I don’t think we should be discussing vaccines in terms of whether we believe in them or not. The science is there to study. I’m not saying scientists don’t hold certain beliefs about what they observe while they collect data. But good scientists do not publish those beliefs; they publish the conclusions that can be drawn from all the data they have collected. You can believe in god. Not science. 

That reminds me of INSPIRE, the Global Health Conference I sat in on over the weekend. Two of the speakers, Dr. Michael Seear and Dr. Judy McLean, both UBC faculty members who have worked extensively in foreign health initiatives, spoke somewhat critically about the idea of global health aide because up until very recently, none of the initiatives were ever tested. No data was ever collected to see whether or not these initiatives were working. And for many years, according to Seear, they were not. It is only since they have begun to collect data and adjust their programs accordingly that he believes aide initiatives in developing countries have started to show the promise of long-term efficacy. That right there is science. Science is not just some scientist toiling away in a lab; it is the practice of rigorous hypothesis testing, data-collecting and analysis that can be applied to almost any field. It is the reason-based approach to solving problems that emerged out of the enlightenment. 

Is it just me, or has science been given a bad rap lately? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive…..

In any case, if you browse the reader comments associated with that article, you’ll find many people pointing fingers at Ukrainians. But I learned just the other day that only 90% of Canadians are vaccinated against polio. Herd immunity against polio only exists if  97% of the population is vaccinated. Something to think about.

Just as an addendum: In case anyone wants to accuse me of oversimplifying, I do realize that there are many issues at play in the Ukraine, such as a somewhat unreliable health care system and political agendas, that probably encourage mistrust and fear of doctors and science. Which is a shame.

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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.

2 Responses to “Vaccine Scares in Europe. Or, excuse me while I rant about the importance of science for a bit.”

  1. Nicholas FitzGerald

    I’ve had a number of conversations with people since the Goodyear incident regarding this curious fact that Science is perceived as a matter of belief amongst the general public. One common idea is that it is a symptom of the way Science is taught in High School, and subsequently presented in the media. Scientific facts are too often presented as simply a list of seemingly arbitrary truths to be memorized. Scientists are seen as wizards in ivory towers who hand down their personal judgments on issues. How could this be remedied? By a stronger focus on the methods and rationale behind scientific discovery. Firm understanding of the scientific method would do much more for our society than any of the scientific facts we were made to memorize in science class in high school.

  2. Nicholas FitzGerald

    On the other hand, if there is any genetic basis for a tendency to reject science then we can expect that trait to be selected against over time. So maybe it’s a problem which solves itself 😛

    Just kidding. Kinda.

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