Saturday, June 18, 2005

Anti-vaccine nonsense.

While perusing the fine New Zealand news outlet TVOne, I came across an article about opposition to the new Meningococcal B vaccine that is currently being administered in New Zealand. The usual kind of objections seem to turn up, such as vapid claims the vaccine is not protective and that it is unsafe among other things. It turns out that the ministry of health has decided to fight back with its own advertising campaign (see previous link). Of course, with such wonderfully intelligent people as the NZ Green party, labelling the vaccine as 'untested', the same party that made a claim GE potatos would turn someones DNA into a potato and tried to ban dihydrogen monoxide; it is no wonder so many are confused. Other than showing the scientific illiteracy these people tend to have, it's also plain dangerous for such people to spread their nonsense.

Since 1991 here in New Zealand we've been in an epidemic of meningitis, caused by the organism Neisseria meningitidis which has killed 231 people and has badly infected many others. Unlike other strains that cause meningitis, the N. meningitidis that causes the disease here has surface antigens (the stuff we typically use in vaccines) that is extremely similar to those on our own cells. This means that it's not really suitable for a vaccine as it will cause an autoimmune disorder.

The solution was to copy what other countries had done in the past to combat their strains of MenB, using outer membrane vesicles that in the past have proved to be effective. Additionally, even though the precedent that this vaccine is safe and effective is going on, it is still being evaluated constantly and of course appears to be passing with flying colours. In all, the vaccine is very definitely well proven to be effective, safe and with the epidemic figures available I would definitely say it is worth it. I even know many people who have had the disease in the past with two of them nearly dying of it, which was quite traumatic for me I can assure you.

Now with the option of a vaccine, we see all the cranks come out of the woodwork. Although the spectacle of watching them generally flaunt their ignorance about the origins of the vaccine, how vaccines work and more is mere amusement to someone trained in immunology or any other medical field, to the general lay person they sound fairly convincing. When it comes to playing with peoples lives with utter nonsense you really do have to be worried. Some parents have already withdrawn their children from the immunisation campaign. Although they are lucky that compliance rates are high, around 89% so herd immunity should still apply, if mass people left the campaign things would fall apart fairly quickly. Worse, I hope that these withdawls are not concentrated in any particular area, which could lead to a small local outbreak among the non-immunised individuals.

Of course, while I write this it should be important to bear in mind that anti-vaccine cranks are nothing particularly new. The controversy over thimerosal in vaccines and autism, which has been thouroughly debunked over at another blog, is just one example (or here for more). These people however are not just a threat because they are intellectually dishonest, they are also a risk to public health and safety by spreading their inane rubbish. Once again, as scientists and medical practitioners it should be important to make sure the public knows the facts and to thouroughly (and publically) debunk anti-vaccine movement claims.