On Fracking and Vaccing 1

No shortage of interesting stuff arriving on my desktop today, much of it (for some obscure reason) along the (shouldn’t really be, but because of irrational fears, still) contentious issues of Shale Gas Extraction via Hydraulic Fracturing and Vaccination.

Not together, you understand. That would be at best, unhelpful, and at worst, downright messy.

[Note, 500 words in: This is already getting too long; I’m going to split it into two posts]

The vaccination one first. It’s a post by Jed Lipinski on Slate and discusses the case for legal action against parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Not, I hasten to add, specifically because of that choice, but because their unvaccinated child may then infect (and cause harm to, or kill) another child. The post is triggered by an episode of a popular American drama, but also refers to this paper by Caplin et al. which asks:

Is there a case for holding non-vaccinators legally liable for harm caused to others by their inaction?

It makes interesting reading.

As a microbiologist and a father of a child who has – by chance – just had her MMR booster and whose teacher is currently off school with Rubella, I would welcome action like this. And that’s not me being vindictive – it’s not because I don’t understand the reasoning behind parents’ who choose not to vaccinate their children:

Parents who don’t vaccinate their kids may have the most heartfelt reason in the world: fear for their own children’s safety.

But, as Lipinski goes on to say:

…the basis for that fear is simply unfounded, and their decisions are putting other kids directly at risk.

So this decision basically comes down to a lack of good education and a lack of understanding. But, putting myself in their position, without those things, it’s fairly easy to see why a parent might make that choice. I am regularly approached by reasonable, intelligent, sane parents who are still concerned as to whether they should vaccinate their children or not.
The attempts to educate parents such as these are clearly failing; either they are being swayed, to varying degrees, by irrational, unscientific arguments, or quite simply, they don’t want to learn – they’re not bothered.

The threat of legal action (unpretty though it is) might just be catalyst for making them sit up and take notice. Almost like having to sign an indemnity form ahead of some activity. Yes, sure you can make your own decisions, just be aware that you are also responsible for the consequences of those decisions. This is a good thing.

However, I imagine that the chances of this sort of law ever making it into reality are slim to zero. And even then, I don’t think that it’s as clear cut as the paper suggests:

Since epidemiologists today can reliably determine the source of a viral infection, the authors argue, a parent who decides not to vaccinate his kid and thus endangers another child is clearly at fault and could be charged with criminally negligent homicide or sued for damages.

There’s a clearly-explained, detailed hypothetical case (of Jinny and Michael) described in the paper, a timeline of events and tests that the authors conclude:

would provide a reliable case for causation.

and apparently:

Utilizing the scientific tools available today, it cannot be proven with 100 percent certainty that Jinny infected Michael with measles. Nevertheless, current scientific techniques could lead experts to state they believe that the preponderance of the evidence, with 95 percent certainty or better, that Jinny infected Michael.

I’m not sure I agree at all with that 95% figure and they don’t state where they got it from. In addition, this is a perfect, uncontaminated (hypothetical) case, and even then they can’t definitively prove causation. You’ll have to read the case to understand these questions in context, but: What if Jinny had caught measles from another – local – unvaccinated child, rather than having contracted it in Germany? The genotyping would be far less specific.
Or what if Michael actually has a life outside the daycare facility, where he may have had contact with other unvaccinated (and infected) children? Can his parents really say that he has had no contact with any other measles-infected child? Can they prove this? How?

Caplin et al. ask:

Can Science Link Jinny’s Measles Infection to Michael’s Death?

And even in this “perfect” case, I say that no, it can’t.
If I were a lawyer for the defence, I’d be counting my huge fee licking my lips at the plateful of ifs, buts and maybes and the side-salad of assumption.

So in summary, suing parents who don’t vaccinate their kids: Nice idea. Right idea. But never going to work.

Back to the drawing board.

[I’ll get the fracking stuff done later or maybe tomorrow – watch this space]

How things work

A great letter in today’s Cape Times from John Walmsley of the Nuclear Institute rebuffing the concerns of opponents to nuclear power in the wake of the troubles at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan.

I’m trying to get hold of the full text, but there was one thing which I found particularly pertinent, especially while the fracking debate continues on this post.

This quote from the letter:

The anti-nuclear lobby will make alarming public pronouncements that will be quietly trashed by professional health organisations in the technical literature.

Brilliant. Because isn’t this the problem? It was the problem with MMR, where the experts repeatedly stated that there was no link to autism, but the anti-vax groups preyed on the public’s fear and exacerbated the effect of Andrew Wakefield’s lies.

And it still exists with the anti-fracking parties spreading fear through emotionally-laden misinformation to advance their cause.
It closes minds and it means that the real information – the important, factual information – is hidden from the general public. Which, of course, is the aim of these people.

In some ways, analogies can be drawn to the issue that troubles me around the media and their inaccuracies: namely that they can shout about a subject  on the front page – however inaccurate their claims may be – often igniting a bitter, yet worthless debate based on nonsense, but then get away with publishing a tiny correction at the bottom of page 19 two weeks later.

Wakefield’s Shameful Legacy

A new study, ironically published in The Lancet, raises serious doubts that the goal of elimination of measles in Europe by 2010 can be attained. The reason for this re-emergence of a disease which was completely under control 15 years ago is the “shoddy, litigation- and profit-driven pseudoscience” of Andrew Wakefield, whose now discredited study published in The Lancet in 1998, linked the MMR vaccine with autism in children.

Measles virus: small, but nasty

It later emerged that Wakefield was paid up to £55,000 by solicitors acting on behalf of the families of some autistic children to prove a link between the vaccine and the condition. This was something that he somehow forgot to mention to his fellow authors, medical authorities or The Lancet.

Simon Murch, one of the leading doctors involved with Wakefield’s research at the Royal Free, said that news of the £55,000 legal funding was “a very unpleasant surprise”.
“We never knew anything about the £55,000 — he had his own separate research fund,” said Murch. “All of us were surprised… We are pretty angry.”

10 years on and Wakefield’s scaremongering has resulted in a 13-year high in the number of measles cases in the UK: an “embarrassing problem” according to the WHO report’s authors. Vaccination levels have improved somewhat over the past 2 years, with concerted “catch-up” campigns for those who missed vaccination, but even cases of measles in South America, which was all but free of the disease, have been traced back to Europe.

Between 2007-8 in Europe, there were over 12,000 cases of measles, which should have been erradicated from the continent by next year. Over 1,000 of them were in the UK:

1,049 is the highest number of measles cases recorded in England and Wales since the current method of monitoring the disease was introduced in 1995.
This rise is due to relatively low MMR vaccine uptake over the past decade and there are now a large number of children who are not fully vaccinated with MMR. This means that measles is spreading easily among unvaccinated children.

As a microbiologist and a parent, I strongly urge all parents to do the decent thing and vaccinate their children. These are not called “preventable diseases” for nothing. Apart from the benefits for you and your kids, there should be a collective sense of social responsibility to help reduce the reservoir of these illnesses in society.
The results of a decade of misinformation, poor science and hysterical reporting are becoming evident now: disease, disability and even death for hundreds of children, all of which could and should have been avoided.

Don’t let it happen to your kids.