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Science with a blind spot

MagazineFebruary 1995 (Vol. 5 Issue 11)Science with a blind spot

To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate that ought to be the question

To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate that ought to be the question. Parents ostensibly have free choice when offered the opportunity to immunize their children against the childhood diseases. But over the past few years, opportunity has turned to tyrann

Where parents used to hold measles parties to get a trivial disease out of the way, now they talk darkly of brain damage and death. A common illness, which, like most illnesses, does lasting damage only in exceptional circumstances, has become a spectre to haunt the modern family. Why is it no longer acceptable to be a parent who prefers not to immunize?

Propaganda associated with the 1994 measles vaccine programme has been successful in magnifying the mood of the moment. Twenty years ago, it would have been laughable to make a film noir out of the "tragedy" of an anticipated measles epidemic. But the government's po faced TV melodrama, a black and white weepie which shows relatives wailing in a hospital corridor after a teenager dies from measles, is taken seriously. Knowing what the rarest and worst case might be, we have begun to act as if the worst will generally happen.

So even to express doubt about vaccination becomes some kind of treachery. State disquiet, or mention your intention to refuse an offered jab and people look at you in horror and disgust. "Don't you care if your child gets diphtheria or whooping cough?" asked an incredulous nurse at my local surgery. Ensnared momentarily by her warped logic, I begun to answer her, but then realized what I was saying, "No I mean, yes, I mean . . . that's not the point."

Not to vaccinate, our society believes, is not to care. It is to expose your child to death or brain damage from an entirely avoidable disease. Worse, it endangers others who (for reasons of ill health or parental "ignorance") may not be protected.

That is, if the theory of herd immunization still holds. When I first started to consider the unpublished facts about immunization that mass immunization is not eradicating diseases, that short term damage is going unrecorded and long term damage barely considered I imagined others would want to share my findings. But these days it is almost impossible to begin a rational and truly open discussion on the subject of immunization.

I recently interviewed an expert on whooping cough and its vaccine, about an article he had written on the inefficacy of the pertussis vaccine in America and elsewhere. "Whole cell and very safe", he said. "The chances are that we will have eliminated pertusses before an acellular vaccine is developed". This, despite glaring evidence he himself had reported that saturation rates of immunization with pertussis vaccine have not stemmed epidemics of the disease.

My university tutor once told me there was no greater chasm between two people than the chasm of belief. It seems as though the difference of opinion between the immunizers and the sceptics is just such a gulf.

On one side is the new crusade for the Eradication of Disease, and if you believe in it, then all evidence to the contrary must be discounted or explained away. Scientists, says Leon Chaitow, "are human and fallible, and anyone finding themselves backed into a position where their basic belief system is questioned is likely to either deceive themselves or others, innocently or deliberately".

This is science with a blind spot we may have contrary evidence, but trust the doctor anyway. It's the stuff that dogma and quackery are made of. It is what we have come to expect from the medical profession as it clings to the broken dreams of doing away with disease.

On the other side of the chasm are the doubters, the families with brain damaged children, the Catholic schools who question the moral correctness of making vaccine out of unborn babies, independent groups like JABS and The Informed Parent. These are the heretics of our time.

One of the problems for this second group is culling evidence to "prove" their case. The health professionals draw on graphic examples to illustrate the potential nastiness of an illness, and no one doubts that the secondary infections which may follow a habitually mild disease like measles can occasionally kill.

But when parents protest that vaccine has damaged their child, they have a problem proving cause and effect. And when they arrive at the doctor's surgery with an apparent illness for which their child has already been immunized, they find the disease has been given a new name; "false measles", or "atypical whooping cough", for example.

"By calling the disease something else", says Leon Chaitow, "they are protecting their belief system, and the integrity of the theories around which they have built their actions, such as vaccination". This is the way governments doctor the unemployment figures, simply giving unemployment another name, a different category in which to hide.

I confess to being a heretic. The crusade to eradicate disease seems as futile and fearful to me as the endless pursuit of safety or the idea of ridding the world of unhappiness. Though I once believed in them, the goals of herd immunization now seem as unattainable as the aims of alchemy, and much more dangerous.

It is part of the human condition to want to control our environment. In this way we have dominated the planet for a very long time but the desire for control may also be a fatal flaw in our make up. Let us hope that the good we aim to do does not blind us to the havoc we create along the way.


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