Astrophysicist and scientific communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted in 2013: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
A quote like this really highlights the amount of faith that many of us put in science as a discipline that assists us in providing relatively objective information about our world, so that we can safely use it for the good of society as a whole.
In 1998, a (discredited) British Doctor, Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues published a study in the Lancet, containing 12 child participants, which suggested that there may be a relationship between the administration of the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) Vaccine and the onset of Autism & Bowel Disease.
Over the next few years, a huge amount of time and effort was devoted to conducting studies that disproved the notion that there was a causal relationship between the use of the MMR vaccine and Autism.
It was discovered that Wakefield had been funded by lawyers working for parents involved in lawsuits against vaccine producing companies, and the study suffered from a lack of scientific representation and ethical issues with the participants.
About 8 months after the study was published I, along with many other children were born to parents who were affected by the widespread fame the study received, thus becoming uneasy about the prospect of potentially triggering the development of a behavioural disorder in their children.
The Anti-vaccination movement, a spawn of such concern has been strongly arguing against such initiatives to reducing the disease since the introduction of the MMR Vaccine in 1971.
This position has been adopted by a variety of public figures, including Andrew Wakefield, (despite the revocation of his study in 2010) and celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy who famously announced in 2007 that the vaccine lead to the development of Autism in her son.
Italy’s government has recently voted to overturn mandatory vaccinations, amidst the number of 2 year olds vaccinated against measles falling from 90%, a rate very close to The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended coverage of 95%, to 80%.
WHO recently reported that in the European region, over 40,000 children and adults have been infected with measles and approximately 37 people have died from the disease so far this year.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England said in May: “The majority of cases we are seeing are in teenagers and young adults who missed out on the MMR vaccine when they were children.”
From 2000 to 2016, measles vaccinations prevented over 20 million deaths and culminated in 2016 marking the first year that death from measles was below 100,000 per year.
Whether vaccinations are the best way to immunise people from life-threatening diseases remains to be a contentious debate.
If organisations such as the Anti-Vaccination movement can enact real-life legislation with the knowledge that their position has been disproved by established scientific investigation, we really need to evaluate the position our medical institution holds.