Warning: bad science can damage your health

Independent on Sunday, 21 April 2013

In the intensive care ward of a hospital in Sierra Leone, I once heard a young man moaning in agony. His body was going into spasms and I was shocked to discover that he was suffering from tetanus. On the same trip to West Africa, I met more than a dozen men with hugely developed shoulders and withered legs – polio survivors, who propelled themselves on hand-driven wooden carts. It made me realise how lucky I am to live in a country where successful vaccination programmes have all but eradicated such diseases.

Sadly, I also live in a nation where people believe all sorts of nonsense; I’m driven to distraction by individuals who talk about feng shui or go on about their star signs. I suppose it isn’t surprising when we have a future head of state who talks about Nature with a capital N (he thinks it’s female, by the way), and attacks science as “mechanistic thinking”. Prince Charles’s (now defunct) Foundation for Integrated Health even lobbied government ministers in support of offering homeopathy – an “alternative” therapy which has been condemned by MPs as “scientifically implausible” – on the NHS.

Nothing confirms the existence of this tragic credulity more dramatically than the current measles outbreak in Swansea. More than 800 cases have been reported in the city since November and on Friday, public health authorities confirmed that a 25-year-old man infected with the disease had died.

I had measles as a child and it was a very frightening experience; I have a vivid memory of having to lie in a darkened room for several days, while anxious adults drifted in and out. This was long before the MMR vaccine became available, but even at this late stage some parents in Wales seem to be reluctant to have their children vaccinated at
emergency clinics. It’s a fascinating fact that most European countries were unaffected by Dr Andrew Wakefield’s entirely discredited 1998 paper in The Lancet, which suggested a possible link between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease, and autism. Wakefield was eventually struck off the medical register for serious professional misconduct, but by 2010 the UK had one of the lowest levels of MMR coverage in a survey of European countries.

What accounts for the difference is the way that sections of the British media, led by the Daily Mail, habitually push an anti-science agenda. British newspapers published  hundreds of MMR scare stories (more than 1,200 in the peak year of 2002) alongside claims about “cures” for cellulite and “sightings” of UFOs.

Experts warned that measles outbreaks would be the result, and that’s what we’re seeing now. There were more than 2,000 confirmed cases in England and Wales last year, almost double the figure for 2011, and the statistics are terrifying for parents of unvaccinated children. But they’re also a warning about the consequences of credulity in a country where hostility to science sometimes seems endemic.


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