Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vaccinations, faith and science

There has been an idiotic campaign against polio vaccination in some parts of the Muslim world, and against Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) in some developed countries. Here is an article in The Independent on the subject:

But today, some of the followers of faith-based thinking are waging a global war on vaccinations. At the turn of the 21st century, the WHO's vaccination programme was on the brink of sending polio to the graveyard of dead diseases. It had been chased down to a handful of remaining areas, which were being rapidly vaccinated. It was almost over, forever.

And then the local mullahs heard about it. The Islamic clerical elite in northern Nigeria announced that God had revealed to them that the vaccine was "un-Islamic", part of an evil plot by the godless West to sterilise Muslim children. The local population, with no alternative sources of information, stopped sending their kids. Now polio is back with a vengeance, and we may never wipe it out. In a clash between reason and revelation, revelation won out .

Its not even revelation here...its just a claim of revelation. A similar campaign was also going on in the northern areas in Pakistan, and it has also setback eradication efforts. But the surprising part of the story is about MMR vaccinations in England:

But before we get too smug and conclude this is a cultural gap between us and Those Damn Muslims, remember – in Britain, over the past five years, there has been a smaller but strikingly similar home-grown jihad against a particular vaccination. It has been waged by none other than the Daily Mail.

In 2000, the paper decided – in the absence of any reliable scientific evidence whatsoever – to give wildly undue prominence to the idea that Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Every reputable scientist in the country explained, patiently, that the sole scientist making these claims – Dr Andrew Wakefield – didn't have any reliable evidence to back him up. He had looked at only 12 autistic children whose parents all fervently blamed MMR – thus skewing his results irreparably. Instead, Britain's scientific community pointed to reams of studies showing conclusively that MMR is not to blame: a study of 1.8 million randomly-chosen children in Finland (as opposed to Wakefield's hand-picked 12) found that autism rates remained the same after the introduction of MMR.

So why was the Mail promoting this view?

Was the Mail's campaign based on faith-based thinking, like the campaign in northern Nigeria? I think it can be shown that it was. Let's look at the figure within the newspaper who spearheaded the MMR campaign: Melanie Phillips. Despite having no scientific qualifications, and despite making the most elementary scientific howlers time and again in her articles, she feels free to announce that virtually all the world's scientists are wrong, on everything from global warming to MMR.

But why was she so certain the MMR campaign should be stopped? Phillips presented her argument as if she was simply siding with one scientist against another. But in reality, she disputes on religious grounds the very basis of vaccinations: evolution. She says that creationism should be taught in schools, and that evolution is "only a theory".

Read the full article here.