Superstition ain’t the way

An excellent op-ed article by Michael Fitzpatrick characterizes quite well the hysterical fear based on no evidence that Andrew Wakefield and his accomplices started in the U.K. over the MMR vaccine and the unfounded claim that it causes autism and bowel disorders:

The rise of a combination of extreme scepticism towards established sources of authority in science and medicine and anxiety about environmental threats to our wellbeing has led many to put their faith in self-proclaimed mavericks and alternative healers and charlatans. The recent outbreaks of measles, which resulted last year in the first childhood death for 15 years, shows how dangerous this credulity can be.

He’s right. Be it antivaccination lunacy such as that stoked by Andrew Wakefield or the rejection of evidence-based medicine in favor of non-evidence-based woo. He’s also spot on with this statement:

The object of immunisation policy is not to provide a “pick and mix” selection to the public, but to provide a coherent programme for the prevention of infectious diseases. A strong body of scientific evidence confirms that MMR provides the best protection for both individual children and for society. As a consequence of ill-informed choices made in a climate of fear irresponsibly cultivated by antivaccine campaigners and vested interests, we now face outbreaks of measles. The choice to refuse MMR to avoid an entirely speculative risk of autism results in children being exposed to the real risks of measles.

Exactly. Once again, the problem is that vaccines have been so successful in eliminating disease. Few people, even among doctors, remember just how serious a disease measles can be. Few parents have seen a case personally, either among their own children, relatives’ children, or children of friends. Consequently, the risks of vaccines, whether the very minuscule real risks or the imagined risk hyped by the antivaccination forces who falsely linked the MMR to autism, seem not worth the price. However, as I mentioned yesterday, the price will eventually be paid sooner or later. In the case of the MMR scare, even nearly nine years later, the scare continues, and the result is suffering and at least one death.

None of this is to say that we should uncritically accept what medical authorities tell us. However, when evaluating what antivaccinationists say, it is important to examine their evidence, such as it is, critically. When that is done, it becomes clear just how weak the evidence is upon which they base their fears compared to the evidence for the safety of vaccines.