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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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Image taken from - www.d.umn.edu One thing that amazes me is that science tends to work quite often; I don’t need to tell you that you already know. The point here is that it tends to work, still there are places where the misunderstanding of science comes in, these are my thoughts on how science sometimes is not based upon real knowledge rather agenda based needs. The aim of the positivists who had its home in part in Vienna, one of the most liberal places in the world at the turn of the last century, was to create an independent body of knowledge that in affect was a real reflection of the world as it exists. In truth as the result of the Vienna circle and those the preceded & came after the circle created three types of worlds, the members are most likely known to you such as Comte, Ayer and Carnap. Ok you have only heard of Comte, that’s ok the names are not that important here. The first world they created was that of Faith and habit, this world was seen as those unimportant things each generation picked up and their children adopted this meant very little because they could not be seen as true and were different from person to person. The second world was that of the metaphysical, in other words religion and its use of explaining the events that where happening. Since this again can’t be observed and tends to differ, this world was also dismissed. The third world was created by the rational and logical person, with the assumption of the scientific method; there are many assumptions in this method. The idea was not that these three worlds could survive side-by-side rather, the second world had replaced the first and the third would replace the second.

 Science as the key to Understanding the world – Science can get it very wrong – In the 19th Century there was a strong organic model that was adopted from the field of biology and was used on one group of people, the poor. This I could describe as the first type of eugenics formed by science, it saw those suffering from poverty not as the result of the society being unfair as it was at the time rather a different and dangerous race of people. At the time of the research there was a great worry about the conditions people were living in and the diseases that were being created by the support of the industrial revolution that were forming tightly packed cities. The poor were seen has having a choice about how they lived when clearly the choice was never given to them, there was no welfare state and if you did not work then you did not eat. Science got this approach wrong and was later dismissed as working and living conditions improved. Still this idea of the race of the poor came about because the scientists involved used their personal experience to understand a social problem and they were not objective.

Science as the progress of society – Newton published in “The Opticks” 1704 the results of how light when it goes through a prism Image from www.wikimedia.orgseparates into the colour spectrum, removing the idea that white light itself cannot be broken down and is only made up of one element. Why did this even matter to Newton? He could have not understood the benefits that would later be developed from this idea; in part we can thank him for the ability to understand radiation and infrared light which are also based on the same spectrum. Perhaps the drive to understanding the world was his greatest force. Newton did provide something much more useful, the idea of induction. I won’t go into induction that deeply here but it is the idea that first you can close the world off and take out the things you want to test putting them in an artificial environment in the process. In other words putting the objects of study into an experiment to see their nature & relationship and this is where science can also go wrong. Taking the objects of study outside of the real world so we can test them, means something more – it means that we are unable to test them in the world, so effectively science never deals with the reflection of the world. Just a controlled version of it! Most science is pushed into explanations of real world things, it is important to remember that science is simply a theoretical model and theories sometimes go wrong.

So why does Science appear to be a contradiction and wrong at times, it’s first that scientist belong to a society and being part of the society with values & social identities, those can get in the way of a rational and logical person. Although the aim is to remove the first and second worlds, they do exist and what we take from them affects who & what is studied and with what aims. This is still happening and if you don’t believe me maybe you would like to visit the Creationist museum in Kentucky. Even if the creationist museum is right, not that I believe it is, then there are still others to provide the contradiction. The second is the misunderstanding of science, it is in essence a working model of the world which does not mean that it will predict or be able to control events in real life from those working models. This is not to say there should be an abandonment of science, it is very useful. Things have come from science that are valuable and people rely on it every single day, so although it can be powerful that does not mean that science is 100% a true reflection of the world, rather it is closer to the true reflection than any other body of knowledge. Evidence that refutes current belief changes that belief and this is why the model of science keeps on growing. The ability to explain and provide is not enough, the ability to change and stand up against evidence is its greatest strength even if it can only be 95% effective at best.

We come to why science happened and took hold in Europe, this is not a simple question to answer because during the dark ages Europe dismissed science and others in the world had a much greater use of it. There came about a new set of social and historical conditions, this was a move away from the divine and the rejection of God as the one in control of the world. Human knowledge took control and this came about through four sets of general changes. With the development of the nation states across Europe it developed the idea of liberalization and social reform. The idea of making your country better and dealing with social problems was at least on the table and the solutions to the problems could be allowed to grow. There was also a change in attitude; people started to think that reason could hold the key to the ability of changing the world. If there was ever going to be a method of making life better science was seen as the most effective one to meet that aim. The old methods of the divine had its chance and it fail to make the necessary improvements. Religion itself caused the place where science could slowly form; it was because of differing religions that caused so many wars and conflicts that resulted in the social development of an understanding for the tolerance of new concepts and ideas. Once people got fed up with conflict they allowed others to think what they would like to and this opened the door for the scientific method. Last of all there was a change in the model of business; once the industrial revolution happened there was a value change in people and by this I mean how much they were worth to a society. With the development of the capitalist market just because someone was a lord it did not matter, money really did make the world go around. This rejection of the old ways allowed the successful and intelligent a place to do their work, rather than a presubscribed position being allocated.

The power of the new idea of humans and their role to play started the shift away from the traditional towards the new methods. The needs of humans became the force of the aims of science. They were able to work together to produce a new set of knowledge and the more success supplied, the higher the role and importance of science. This is of course is a very short history but it is the general direction that happened. I would like to put the reference links in here but that seems too lengthy a process however, if you are interested in the reference books please let me know and I will give them to you. I would recommend Smith’s Social Science in question, ISBN 0-7619-6041-4 if you are interested in learning more.

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