Monday, January 09, 2006

Resistance to vaccines

Nature has this report on the development of resistance among many parents to vaccines and focuses particularly on the MMR vaccine.

Nostradamus we are not, but a safe prediction for 2006 is that initiatives promoting public engagement in science and technology policy-making will proliferate. There will, of course, be devils in the details, and critical assessments will be required. But Nature, having consistently championed public engagement, can nevertheless only welcome its development.

But there are times when no amount of explanation and consultation can counter the resistance of some sectors of the public, often representing a strong current in society, to the most carefully crafted science-based advice. Because the stakes for people's quality of life, economic development and the rights of individuals can be high, governments and the rest of us need to understand how and why such resistance to science develops.

Studies by social scientists have a major role to play in providing an understanding of how such resistance develops. A notable example is British research led by Melissa Leach at the University of Sussex into strong resistance by parents to their children receiving a freely available vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). The relevance of this research extends well beyond the particular circumstances and region studied.

The research, of which an unreferenced report has been released that can be found here, seems to be fairly comprehensive in its detail over how opposition to vaccines seems to start with parents. Not surprisingly a wide range of attributes plays an important part and the report analyses the effects of information aquired over the internet. Additionally was the finding that many of those opposed to vaccines were more likely to have histories of illness or were into 'alternative' medical treatments such as homeopathy. Interestingly for me, was one of the studies findings summarised by Nature:
Confounding stereotypes, the parents ranged across the social classes and in many cases displayed a sophisticated understanding of the issues.
Which is true in many respects, often the understanding is actually fairly high but the problem is that the knowledge is being misapplied or hasn't been thought through correctly. For example, Ron Law our resident anti-vaccination proponent, probably understands what the point of clinical trials are, he just doesn't know what each stage in a clinical trial is actually supposed to achieve. As a result, he misrepresents the fact MeNZB has not undergone phase III trials as something significant when it isn't.

Unfortunately, when the initial reports from the horrific Lancet MMR paper came out that supposedly linked the vaccine with autism the publics confidence was lost very rapidly. Although the study was shown to be statistically flawed as with several other studies attempting to link MMR to diseases like Crohn's, the publics confidence has remained low although vaccination rates are starting to rise again. I think as Nature concludes in the end of their report...
Thus there is a strong case for a well-resourced independent national agency that commands the trust of both the government and the public in matters of health protection and is empowered to take responsibility for mediating in such debates.
...that this is a really good idea. Additionally, I would think that more interaction between scientists and the public is required not just in areas of medicine, but in the food industry (GE) and in the origins of all life (evolution). It's not sufficient anymore to simply say as a scientist "we have the degree and we're right" to the public, but rather we need to engage the public and say "this is what we are doing, and this is how it benefits you and why you should use it".