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February 27, 2008

The Preventable Plague

Posted in: Uncategorized

(Note — Hekebolos has a diary up on DailyKos on the huge success of the Associated Press "Show Your Patriotism" action. If you’re a Kossak please stop by and hit the "recommend" button — jh)

Remember measles? Mumps? All the childhood diseases you thought were vanquished forever — in the developed world, at least? Guess what — they’re making a comeback.

San Diego is in the midst of an outbreak of measles. (The child in this picture is one of the victims.)

Mumps has been hitting the UK hard since 2005 — a British soccer team recently had a player diagnosed with it — and strains of the UK mumps made their way to Iowa in 2006 and Canada last year. Measles, once rare in Britain, has also made a comeback in recent years.

Why is all of this happening? Because a growing number of parents, particularly in Britain and California, are falling under the spell of the anti-vaccination cultists who claim, in spite of repeated debunkings and no actual evidence in their favor, that vaccines are icky and cause autism — claims opposed by legitimate autism experts.

The anti-vaccination promoters, who got their start in the UK in 1998 on the strength of a study that was later debunked six ways from sundown, had started out by blaming only vaccines containing mercury compounds for the alleged "autism epidemic" that in reality is far more likely to be the result of changes in how autism is diagnosed. But since most of those types of vaccines haven’t been used in years and autism hasn’t declined as a result, they’re now attacking all vaccines. Parents who fall for this don’t get their kids vaccinated — which leaves them easy prey for all the diseases we thought were just bad memories.

None of the child victims in the San Diego measles outbreak were vaccinated. In fact, two of them attended a charter school with the highest rate of non-vaccination of any campus in San Diego.

Ironies abound in the anti-vax movement. The anti-vaccinators claim that vaccination is done solely for profit — yet Andrew Wakefield, the researcher whose original flawed 1998 study had its conclusions retracted and denied by ten of his fellow twelve collaborators, started his study in August of 1996 after Richard Barr, a lawyer for a group of parents of autistic children, hired him to do so, and helped get him £55,000 (around $90,000 back then) from the UK’s Legal Aid Board — a serious breach of ethics that Wakefield neglected to mention to The Lancet‘s editors, who would have never published the study had they known about this ethical conflict.

The anti-vaccinators claim that medical professionals who support vaccination are deluded or lying — yet they themselves not only routinely engage in lies and deceit, their entire campaign is based on a debunked paper created under the dodgiest of circumstances.

To paraphrase Joseph Welch when he spoke to a malignant con-artist who preyed on good people’s fears: Have the anti-vax leaders no sense of decency? At long last, have they no sense of decency?

UPDATE: Great minds think alike! Orac over at Respectful Insolence in the ScienceBlogs complex has this to say today:

In case you haven’t heard it enough on this blog and elsewhere: Antivaccination lunacy has consquences. In the UK, measles cases have jumped to a record high:

The number of measles cases in England and Wales jumped more than 30% last year to the highest level since records began in 1995. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) recorded 971 cases during the year – up from 740 in 2006.

The agency issued a warning last summer urging parents to get their children immunised with the MMR jab.

Experts have repeatedly stressed that public concerns about the safety of the jab have no foundation.

As I’ve pointed out before, this is the true legacy of Andrew Wakefield: Falling vaccination rates, misery and suffering due to the return of vaccine-preventable diseases, and at least one dead child. Ten years later, the effects of his pseudoscience and lack of ethics continue to reverberate in the U.K. The same could happen here in the U.S. if the mercury militia has its way.

By the way, one thing I forgot to mention: The mercury compound used in vaccines, thiomersal, thimerosal or just plain old ethyl mercury, is not the same stuff as the methyl mercury that’s encountered in industrial pollution and which collects in seafood. Study after study in recent years shows that ethyl mercury doesn’t stay in the body long enough to do any harm, and is readily eliminated from the body via the digestive tract. Bear in mind that the reason ethyl-mercury-based vaccines were discontinued in the first place was the belief that ethyl mercury stayed in the body the way methyl mercury did. This belief has now been shown to be false, and as a result the World Health Organization in June 2006 stated that there was no reason to stop the use of vaccines containing this compound.


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