Lawrence Solomon: First do no harm

National Post

Canada

Posted: May 23, 2009, 2:44 AM by Ron Nurwisah

Those who question the safety of vaccines are being unfairly attacked. Vaccines do both harm and good

Vaccines do good and they do harm. They also arouse passions among those who would see no harm. And intolerance, as seen in reactions to Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy for giving voice to vaccine skeptics.

Here’s the Vancouver Sun, in an article that focuses on celebrities raising doubts about the safety of vaccinating children: while “scientists are working around the clock to develop [vaccines], another group of people are working just as hard at promoting skepticism of vaccines … with the Internet’s unparalleled ability to spread rumours, innuendo and conspiracy theories, and with celebrities taking a leading role in the anti-vaccinationist movement, stories about the damage allegedly caused by vaccines are receiving more publicity than ever.”

Or Jonathan Adler in the conservative National Review Online: “Oprah Winfrey has decided to promote the career — and by extension, the dangerous and lunatic ravings — of professional-bimbo-turned-anti-vaccine-activist Jenny McCarthy. Set aside any culture war concerns, the promotion of McCarthy’s views at such a level is a real, tangible threat to the physical health and well-being of our children.”

Or my own National Post, in an editorial entitled “The danger of an anti-vaccine panic”: “It seems there is no brand of New Age nonsense Oprah Winfrey will not peddle on her show, but getting involved with anti-vaccination sentiment crosses a hugely important line.”

The vaccinationists have good arguments. The preponderance of scientific studies generally absolves vaccines. Where the welfare of children is involved, the state can legitimately intervene when irresponsible parents endanger their offspring. And where contagious diseases are involved, the public is entitled to protection. The vaccinationist’s bottom line: While vaccines may not be risk free, the benefit to society of controlling and potentially eradicating disease is immense compared to the miniscule risk vaccination may attach to individuals.

But the anti-vaccinationists also have good arguments. Peer-reviewed vaccination studies, because they tend to be funded by the pharmaceutical industry, are suspect. The pro-vaccine bias of government funding agencies gives short shrift to studies proposed by skeptics. Even when dissenting peer-reviewed studies do somehow get funded and published, including in prestigious scientific journals, the studies tend to be dismissed and the authors personally attacked. The anti-vaccinationist’s bottom line: You vaccinate your children on the recommendations of the medical authorities if you wish; I’ll exercise my right to choose what’s best for my child by weighing the benefits and the risks of particular vaccines.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.