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MMR image from retiredrambler.typepad.com The MMR vaccine, an all-round method for protecting children against measles, mumps and rubella, was first used right at the end of the 1960’s it was clear to see it was an ever effective method of disease control. This vaccine was the result of scientific methods and the empowerment of people to see something that required effort & attention in so dealing with it; this has saved around an estimated 1.8 million people. As well as stopping these diseases from causing death it also had the effect of removing some of the other common results of the illness such as mental defects. So when the level of measles starts to rise and the first child died from it in 2006 in the UK after 14 years of no measles related deaths, we have to really start to understand why. Most of the answer was due to Dr Andrew Wakefield who was guilty of bad science in his report suggesting that there was a link between MMR and autism. Is it right for me to blame just one person for the increasing measles cases or do we all need to bare some of the responsibility? Wakefield’s report argued that there was an inherent risk from the MMR vaccine and suggested that single vaccines would reduce the risk to the child. The conclusions were based on the observation of 12 children all of who were determined to have shown symptoms of autism type behaviour 8 of which were reported within two weeks of the MMR vaccination. This is bad science in two main ways; the first is no control group which is the base of children that have received the vaccine without showing any symptoms of autism without this group it is impossible to determine whether the MMR vaccine did cause autism. The second problem is that if you are only dealing with 12 children all of which are showing symptoms, of course this will alter anyone’s perception of what is going on, since we tend to see patterns naturally even if they are not there.

The Man – the threat was simply based on a theory, he suggested that the combined vaccine overloaded the immune system of the child which in turn caused a bowel disorder and later a form of autism. Wakefield views were dismissed time and time again by experts in the field, as he never proved clear evidence to link the vaccine to autism, even though there was an increase in the reported levels of autism. In most studies cited by Wakefield there were children who had autism which also received MMR although a smaller number had also received the single vaccines. Although it could be suggested that the measles vaccine could trigger the onset of autism this would also indicate the single vaccine could also possibly be a trigger. Wakefield used bad science since he only ever looked at small numbers which violates the conditions of the scientific method of reliability and validation. Wakefield faced professional misconduct charges for performing unnecessary procedures on children and he was also questioned about his position in research in this area and his role as an expert in MMR litigation. The parents of the 12 children used by Wakefield in his initial investigation were seeking to sue the producers of the vaccine. The GMC described him as dishonest and brought a number of charges of wrongful conduct.

The Media – the media ran with the story and like any good business they used it to sell the media they were producing. They helped to present a confusing picture for parents by introducing doctors that backed the withdrawal of the MMR vaccine without ever considering the level to which they should be placed in context. In a sense those doctors who back each side were given equal weight and offered a personal dilemma that parents had to face, despite the fact the official position as always been there is no link between the vaccine and autism. The focus was on autism and not the potential harmful disease that the vaccine would protect against. The Parents – often people react more to the thing which is less likely to happen but offers more worrying and unknown consequences. The threat of something that is unknown is much more powerful as a fear than that to which we think that we know more about. As the result of the fear of MMR fewer children were protected from the known diseases, the disease increased and children suffered as a result. Of course, the single jabs were always available still these left gaps between when the first vaccine was given and the last one, this was sometimes the only opportunity required for illness. Countries like the UK also refused to pay for the single vaccinations since there was no evidence MMR was linked to autism and the extra cost could not be justified within a limited budget. This left many children without any protection!

The truth – A couple of months after Wakefield suggested a bowel disorder could cause autism a 14 year long study found that around 0.001% of the children given the MMR vaccine suffered any bowel problems, all of which never showed any signs of autism. Even if we take that number, 0.001% as having the possibility of developing autism and let’s assume that they do, this is still less likely than the other two major results of measles. There is a 0.033% chance the measles will result in mental retardation and there is a 0.01% chance that someone will die from measles (this is an estimate; this is reduced to a degree with modern medications although those children unprotected from measles often end up in hospital). There is a higher chance of dying from measles than from the assumption that every bowel disorder will cause autism. Reported cases of autism numbers are on the increase this might be due to many factors, only a small percentage of the cases have strong genetic links. In a Japanese city were the vaccine was withdrawn the numbers of reported autism cases still showed an increase. If the MMR vaccine was to blame then the trend should have started to go down rather than up, as it did. There is a real issue of genetic predispositions and environmental factors which is still unclear, to say that is more acceptable than spreading fear and concern for something that might not be the real cause, MMR has shown to not be the real cause. The truth is the more parents that don’t have their children vaccinated then it puts everyone else at risk, only one person needs to bring the disease into a community to infect all the unvaccinated children. While medical resources are used to treat the outbreak it is not being spent on other things, so if there is a known cure being that of the MMR vaccine can anyone be justified at putting other people at risk by diverting money away from treating other conditions? There is perhaps a more worrying end to all of this, while antibiotics are losing the battle with disease why should we risk using them to treat diseases like measles when that could result in them being less effective for other illnesses that we currently have no proactive defence for. It is clear that the benefits of the MMR vaccine outweigh the risk!

This is a prime example of risk taking behaviour by large parts of our own societies, the risk from measles, mumps and rubella has always been greater than that of autism. So why did we act in such a strange way? This is not just about awareness of the issues that are at play it is about how we perceive information, it was the fault of Wakefield, even though he acted against what doctors are meant to uphold, he was perhaps stupid and dishonest. It was not the fault of the media after all they represent things in such a way that allows them to get people’s attention. It has to do with us and how we use critical thinking in order to understand things. It might be argued that we cannot all understand such medical terms and its language; we can use our brains and go find the information though. We could go and look at logical fallacies for ourselves. At the heart of it, it is about how we come to understand risk we see ourselves in and for the most part inaction appears like the most sensible course of action, still this is not! If you can understand why a loving and caring parent would make such an error in judgment then perhaps you can also see the reflection when it comes to Reiki or homeopathic medicine, or even maybe the relationship we might have with horoscopes. Things might appear to hold less risk than they actually do while others are more dangerous than they are given credit for.

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*Picture from www.scifi.com/ghosthunters *Picture from http://www.scifi.com/ghosthunters

Ghost Hunters is an American TV show where they go to places, either homes or places like lighthouses, with the aim to investigate them scientifically. They use all sorts of equipment and it’s what has been recorded that they have to use as the evidence of any proof that paranormal activity is going on. Of course, there are a lot of questionable things that tend to keep coming up, that is not what I was most shocked by. Imagine this – they go into a government building of a small town and look at the webcam shots of a man standing in the main discussion hall. The webcam faced the centre, where the speaker would sit in the hall; there is space on either side outside the scope of the webcam. The webcam was set up to take a picture every 3 seconds. What happen is that in the first frame there is just the hall, on the second frame there is a man standing in the middle of the hall, in third frame the hall is again empty. Remember the webcam took a picture every three seconds.

In order to prove that this could be possible, the ghost hunters tried to walk from the left of the hall to the right of the hall in three seconds, they did not achieve this. In other words they tried to get from the right just out of frame to the left just out of frame. Their conclusion was that the webcam images could therefore, be the result of paranormal activity because they could not get out of camera view in three seconds. This is why sometimes those doing things scientifically can be subject to misunderstanding. Rather than 3 seconds, they had to at least 5 seconds to get from one end of the hall to the other and therefore, get out of camera shot – that is an over estimate of half a second for each exposure. In other words the ghost hunting team used their common sense rather than logic. This is how it works, in second 0 a webcam picture is taken, at 0.5 the man starts working across the hall, in second 3 a webcam picture is taken, then the man has 2.5 seconds to get to the other side of the hall in second 5.5-6 another picture is taken. That means the man has 5 seconds to get from one side of the hall to the other and this is possible. The ghost hunter’s science needs to be questioned.

Anyway, I thought I would mention it!

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