Sunday, 24 April 2011

Vexing the Anti-vaxxers

As soon as one scare story has been quietly debunked the media will soon latch onto a new one to fill its place. The MMR-autism scare story persisted for years and has helped to encourage a fear of any vaccine. The idea that you were filling your body with poison has been around right from the start of vaccinations but an increasing number of people are persistently clinging to this belief while ignoring the facts.

The latest scare is related to the relaively new swine-flu vaccine, Pandemrix. There are concerns that there may be a link between having the vaccination and developing narcolepsy, but this has been taken by some as further confirmation that all vaccines are inherently dangerous.

To put things into perspective, over 30.8 million of these vaccines have been administered within the EU. 167 people have been diagnosed with narcolepsy possibly associated with Pandemrix in these countries. This means that the side effect, while highly unpleasant, is very rare - only 0.00054% of people were affected, or just over one in 200,000. You have a higher chance of getting a chest infection from taking aspirin than you do of geting narcolepsy from this vaccine.

The Daily Mail, displaying its usual level-headedness and calm, has published another anecdotal article about Pandemrix. Here we see the key hallmark of the irrational: emotional blackmail. By putting the story in the context of a distressed mother and her child, any criticism or mention of scaremongering will be met with disapproval. Pseudoscientists and charlatans are very adept at this sort of manipulation.

I know a lot of us don't the Daily Mail as a reliable source of evidence but the comments on the page speak volumes. Many people believe that vaccines are toxic and unnecessary and they genuinely think they are doing the right thing for their children by avoiding them. The following two comments highlight a lack of understanding about the subject and illustrate the hysteria surrounding it:

"she couldn't have researched it that well because there were more than enough warnings going around the web about it including on the DM. What do parents expect to happen when we keep filling our childrens little bodies with jab after jab of toxins?"

"This kind of thing has been happening for years in the US. The are many people who don't let the state give their kids vaccinations any more because of shit like this! They are drugging the population with crap in the vaccines!"
Normally I would find these kinds of comments and hyperbole amusing, but this kind of attitude can put people at serious risk and even kill them. A lot more needs to be done to educate people about the science behind vaccines and a measured view of the associated risks - these health scare stories shift papers but they do nothing to improve public health.

In light of scare stories like these I have decided to create a project for my own personal amusement. Benedict Price from Affpuddle, Lancashire will be stalking these articles posting huge straw men whenever he can - his latest contribution (still pending) on the vaccines article will compare the Pandemrix vaccine to being injected with dishwater and portray scientists as money-hungry boffins. I'm interested to see the reaction to these kinds of comments, it's surprising how some people can interpret (or misinterpret) basic data and scientific concepts. Rational argument has been known to work on the Guardian pages on occasion but it's worth measuring opinion in other sources as well.

Is it still trolling if you're claiming it's supposed to be research?


  1. Yep, it's still trolling, but at the DM how could anyone possibly tell?

    I liked your alter ego's comment saying the NHS saves the lives of poor people -- the readers gave it 14 negative votes and no positives!

  2. Oh, I remember that. The DM ratings system is an aggregate type of thing, so the 14 negative votes is bizarrely the best scenario here - there may have been even more negatives to balance out any positive votes.

    Funny old world, isn't it?