I was on Newsnight this evening, discussing the measles outbreak in Swansea, and how we can get people vaccinated with MMR when they’ve previously refused. In my view: prevention is better than cure, it’s hard to reverse a scare story once the toothpaste is out of the tube, and we must innoculate ourselves against future vaccine scares, because they will come. That’s why services like Behind The Headlines are important. Here’s the video:
At the end, Jeremy Paxman seemed (endearingly) amazed to hear that vaccine scares respect local cultural boundaries. Here’s what I was discussing, in an extract from my first book Bad Science (this bit’s from pages 292-4 of the red paperback):
Vaccine scares in context
…Before we begin, it’s worth taking a moment to look at vaccine scares around the world, because I’m always struck by how circumscribed these panics are, and how poorly they propagate themselves in different soils. The MMR and autism scare, for example, is practically non-existent outside Britain, even in Europe and America. But throughout the 1990s France was in the grip of a scare that hepatitis B vaccine caused multiple sclerosis (it wouldn’t surprise me if I was the first person to tell you that).
In the US, the major vaccine fear has been around the use of a preservative called thiomersal, although somehow this hasn’t caught on here, even though that same preservative was used in Britain. And in the 1970s – since the past is another country too – there was a widespread concern in the UK, driven again by a single doctor, that whooping-cough vaccine was causing neurological damage.
Looking even further back, there was a strong anti-smallpox-vaccine movement in Leicester well into the 1930s, despite its demonstrable benefits, and in fact anti-inoculation sentiment goes right back to its origins: when James Jurin studied inocu- lation against smallpox (finding that it was associated with a lower death rate than the natural disease), his newfangled numbers and statistical ideas were treated with enormous suspicion. Indeed, smallpox inoculation remained illegal in France until 1769. Even when Edward Jenner introduced the much safer vaccination for protecting people against smallpox at the turn of the nineteenth century, he was strongly opposed by the London cognoscenti.
And in an article from Scientific American in 1888 you can find the very same arguments which modern antivaccination campaigners continue to use today:
The success of the anti-vaccinationists has been aptly shown by the results in Zurich, Switzerland, where for a number of years, until 1883, a compulsory vaccination law obtained, and small- pox was wholly prevented – not a single case occurred in 1882. This result was seized upon the following year by the anti-vacci- nationists and used against the necessity for any such law, and it seems they had sufficient influence to cause its repeal. The death returns for that year (1883) showed that for every 1,000 deaths two were caused by smallpox; In 1884 there were three; in 1885, 17, and in the first quarter of 1886, 85.
Meanwhile, WHO’s highly successful global polio eradication programme was on target to have eradicated this murderous disease from the face of the earth by now – a fate which has already befallen the smallpox virus, excepting a few glass vials – until local imams from a small province called Kano in north- ern Nigeria claimed that the vaccine was part of a US plot to spread AIDS and infertility in the Islamic world, and organised a boycott which rapidly spread to five other states in the country. This was followed by a large outbreak of polio in Nigeria and surrounding countries, and tragically even further afield. There have now been outbreaks in Yemen and Indonesia, causing lifelong paralysis in children, and laboratory analysis of the genetic code has shown that these outbreaks were caused by the same strain of the polio virus, exported from Kano.
After all, as any trendy MMR-dodging north-London middle-class humanities-graduate couple with children would agree, just because vaccination has almost eradicated polio – a debilitating disease which as recently as 1988 was endemic in 125 countries – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.
The diversity and isolation of these anti-vaccination panics helps to illustrate the way in which they reflect local political and social concerns more than a genuine appraisal of the risk data: because if the vaccine for hepatitis B, or MMR, or polio, is dangerous in one country, it should be equally dangerous everywhere on the planet; and if those concerns were genuinely grounded in the evidence, especially in an age of the rapid propagation of information, you would expect the concerns to be expressed by journalists everywhere. They’re not.