On Monday night, the 10th of September 2007, a number of GUSSF members (Jayson, Jo, David, Nick, Russel, Joel and I) had the opportunity to attend a lecture by 2006 Australian of the Year Prof. Ian Frazer. The event was held by the Queensland Skeptics and was a rather casual affair with no more than 30 people attending. This made for a laid back atmosphere and facilitated a very informative question and answer session following the lecture.
Prof. Frazer began his presentation with a nice overview of the history of infectious disease control, covering the progression of vaccination as an effective tool in combating viral diseases that have afflicted the human race over the decades. The lecture then shifted focus to examine specifically the effectiveness of various vaccines and in doing so managed to address a number of issues that have been raised in the media regarding possible negative effects of vaccinations. There were two main points that I took away from this part of the lecture:
1. Vaccinations are very effective in protecting populations against infectious disease.
2. Any negative side-effects caused by a vaccine (of which many may be completely unrelated) are negligible compared to the immense benefit of being vaccinated against potentially life threatening diseases.
Which leads me to ask the question: why must the media and some organisations exaggerate claims related to vaccination side-effects? Recently in the UK there has been a significant media focus on a now discredited claim that the measles vaccine was responsible for causing autism in children. Prof. Frazer even mentioned that the company that produces the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has begun manufacturing it without the measles component just so parents would at least vaccinate their children against the other two diseases.
Similarly in Australia, the recently developed Gardasil vaccine for protection from the virus responsible for cervical cancer, of which Prof. Frazer is responsible for developing, has received some negative media coverage. Ok, so some girls fainted after receiving the vaccine, wow. It is not uncommon for people to faint after having received injections yet the media has decided that it warrants negative press. This is a life saving vaccine and many high school girls are now opting not to receive it. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that in giving the media the responsibility for informing the public about important matters, the resultant misrepresentation of facts for a “good story” or due to a lack of scientific knowledge in the area has real-world implications. A small portion of the individuals who opted to not receive the vaccine will needlessly die from cervical cancer. This is a sad but true consequence of the unwarranted negative press that vaccines often receive. As Prof. Frazer said himself, at least in the case of Gardasil those who opt not to receive the vaccination will not be endangering the lives of others, only themselves.
So where does the responsibility lie? The media certainly has a considerable burden to bear, but so too do those who are responsible for science communication. Until scientists can communicate effectively with the public regarding these important issues, no amount of media-bashing will stop the misrepresentation of facts from occurring and consequently, from people making poor decisions. So the question of whether or not to vaccinate is a no-brainer for me. Sadly, for many others a mixture of a lack of knowledge and the media’s influence has led to them making poor decisions regarding themselves and their children. I encourage you to think critically about these issues prior to making a decision based solely on information provided by the media or by groups with a vested interest. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and research the area, for the decision is ultimately up to you. Make it an informed one.