A chance encounter on a train brought Alex Cole-Hamilton face-to-face with one of the conspiracy theorists putting lives at risk
Social media has a lot to answer for, whether that’s online abuse, radicalisation and dangerous dares and fads. We surround ourselves on social media platforms with like-minded people who share interesting articles and posts which mirror our own world view. In the main that’s harmless and even comforting, but the emergence of social media pseudo-scientists – who latch on to discredited scientific research, change their behaviour because of it and evangelise for others to do likewise, can extremely harmful to the greater public health. Nowhere is that more self-evident than in the anti-vaccine movement.
The anti-vaxxers are a loosely-alligned conspiracy theorist subculture which holds that vaccinations are responsible for a wide range of global health problems. The movement, to a large extent is led by people with no medical or scientific qualifications (or, those ironically who have been stripped of those credentials). So pervasive and so demonstrably wrong is this belief, that the WHO has defined vaccine-hesitancy as one of the ten biggest threats to global public health.
In the UK many anti-vaxxers point to a 1998 paper published by Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet linking the MMR vaccine and autism. That paper was not only savaged under peer review, it later came to light that he had manipulated his findings to prove his pre-existing theory that the two were linked. It was enough to see him struck off as a clinician. Yet the touch paper had been lit and the movement germinated. The reach they now seem to have is impressive and scary in equal measure.
By way of example, I rode a train up from Oxenholme a few weeks ago. Tthe journey was punctuated by the toddler across the aisle coughing a lot and ultimately being a bit sick all over himself. I offered the boy’s mother a clean handkerchief and we struck up a conversation. She exclaimed that it was really rare for him to take ill. His imperviousness to illness she explained was why his cognitive development was also so impressive. This was, she claimed, down to the fact that he’d never been vaccinated, against anything.
I didn’t really know how to respond, but I was rendered speechless when she then called for the attention of the entire carriage and proclaimed: “Don’t vaccinate your kids folks – it causes autism. Do the research: you can find everything you need to know on Facebook”. I wish I’d called her out and challenged this for the hogwash it was, but I was blindsided, tired and the train was pulling into Haymarket.
I should have said something, because this really matters. Lives depend on it. Due in part to the quackery pedalled by the anti-vaccine movement, we are seeing a year-on-year drop in vaccination uptake. The result is stark, with measles cases in particular sky-rocketing and people dying in the resultant epidemics. So bad is the current outbreak in New York City that city hall has now imposed a public order where those who stay unvaccinated can be served with a $1000 fine.
The point is this: for every child who goes unvaccinated, we diminish something known as “herd immunity” that is the collective defence communities of people living in close proximity to one another present to potential outbreaks of disease. Herd immunity only works if over 90 per cent of people are vaccinated and we’re slipping below that. This matters hugely to those who are elderly or already infirm who depend on herd immunity and might very well die without its protection. Put simply, the more parents anti-vaxxers convince to avoid vaccination, the higher the body count resultant of an almost criminally negligent social media pseudo-science.
So if your child isn’t up to date with the vaccines on offer, make an appointment. It’s never too late.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western