Review of “Are your kids contagious” Tonight special on the Liverpool measles outbreak

MMR VaccineLiverpool is in the midst of a measles outbreak. Worryingly, there are currently over 7,000 unvaccinated under 5s on Merseyside. This prompted ITV’s “Tonight” show to film a special entitled “Are your kids contagious?”.

The details of the program are available here.

Overall, I was very impressed with the show. Right from the start, it was clear that the makers of the show knew about the scientific evidence, and the take home message was a firm “Get your kids vaccinated people!”. It was very refreshing to see a lack of BBC-style “false balance” in the show.  All through the show, it was taken as read that vaccines work and were safe, effective and required to stop diseases. They didn’t interview Andrew Wakefield, go to America to talk to Generation Rescue or Australia to talk to Meryl Dorey.

However, I did have a small gripe regarding their coverage of Andrew Wakefield. While they made it clear that his research on MMR was flawed and not accepted by the scientific community, they did say “Wakefield’s work did not agree with the scientific consensus and he was struck off”. Now, this makes it sound like a scientist can be dismissed from his position if he comes up with work which does not agree with the current consensus. This is not the case. Rather, Wakefield was struck off the medical register for a multitude of sins, including non-disclosure of a conflict of interest, paying children for blood samples at a birthday party, and worst of all, conducting painful investigations like colonoscopies and lumbar punctures without approval from his ethics committee.

The closest they got to false balance was to interview a couple of non-vaccinating mothers. Although they tried to argue in a subtly “Mumsy” way, they’re ill-informed selfishness was clear for all to see. I’m sure they only wanted what was best for their children, but they seemed to be in denial that their children could end up being contagious and passing diseases on to others. I thought the program did well to point this out.

The most moving part of the show was a feature on Dawn and Dave Benson, whose baby daughter died from whooping cough. I thought they were incredibly brave and selfless to appear on TV to tell their story, and I congratulate them for it. It was also a reminder that for whatever reason, some people cannot be vaccinated. This is why herd immunity is so important, as for everyone to be protected, as many people as possible need to be vaccinated.

Also, I think we all owe thanks to the many doctors, nurses and health workers who do a great job in administering vaccinations. Overall, I felt the program was well-researched and well balanced, with only a few small errors. A good example of what a documentary can be like without false balance!


‘Stand Againt Vaccinations’ Facebook group gets busy after ‘upgrade’

Stand against vaccinationsFor awhile now, I’ve been an admin of the “Stand Against Vaccinations..Find Out the TRUTH” group on Facebook. It was founded as an anti-vaccine group, a place where people could spew misinformation that puts their own an other people’s children at risk. Various members were also pushing homeopathy, chiropractic and various other quack treatments, even chelation therapy. At some point, all the admins left, so a pro-vaxxer saw the opportunity and took it over, making myself an admin. We removed the censorship and posted some sensible advice to counteract the anecdotes being spouted by the antivaxxers.

Due to Facebook constantly meddling with their own website, I’ve had to ‘upgrade’ it from the classic old style group to the new style. I was pretty wary about doing this, as I’ve found myself in ‘new’ groups without being asked, before having my inbox bombarded with emails every time someone posts anything in the group. So after upgrading, I did indeed find plenty of emails from the group, but I was very surprised by the quantity! The upgrade has encouraged plenty of people from both camps to leave their comments on the group.

Although I’m happy that more people are getting involved in the group, I’m not sure about a couple of changes. Firstly, the posts are now ordered by the date of the last comment, rather than the date of the original post, so it can look like people’s posts are being deleted as they get quickly pushed down the page. However, far more annoying is the fact that when commenting, hitting enter causes you to post! Other people have reported problems with posting links too, so hopefully Facebook can iron out these bugs before too long. Happy posting people!

Antivaxxers attempt a scientific survey and fail

An oft-repeated chant of the antivax brigade is that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Of course, this link has been debunked in countless studies, including a Danish study which compared 400,000 vaccinated children to 100,000 unvaccinated children and found no difference in the autism rate between the two groups.

Unsatisfied, some antivaxxers try to move the goalposts, claiming that completely unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated. In an attempt to get some data to support this claim, the website has set up an online survey. Clearly, anonymous data submitted to a website has no scientific validity, and now you have the chance to show the antivax community why.

I’ve made my own small contribution by filling out the form myself. According to their records, there exists a child in the UK by the name of “Steggles X. Williamson”. This child has never been vaccinated, only treated with homeopathy, but has pretty much every disease and neurological disorder you can think of. He can’t even sit still for Barney the Dinosaur. I invite everyone reading this to flood the form with silly data, much like you would crash a creationist poll. A couple of minutes of creative fun for you, a headache for the antivaxxers!

The most pathetic antivax photo ever?

As an admin of the Facebook group “Stand Against Vaccinations..Find Out the TRUTH” (a group which ran out of antivax admins and was taken over by a sane person) I’m privileged to the finest in antivax tripe. However, I’ve just seen something that really tips the scales. John Best, a man with presidential aspirations, has just informed everyone of his mode of transport:

Naturally, I questioned the authenticity of this photo, thinking that a fellow provaxer had made it in photo shop in order to take the piss. This is the response I got:

facebook antivax garbageI await their further response.

Daily Express Antivaccine Paranoia

Following the embarrassment of their coverage of the Andrew Wakefield saga, you would have thought that gutter tabloids like the Daily Express would have learned their lessons when it comes to the issue of vaccination. Sadly not, as their “health editor” Lucy Johnston has written an unscientific scaremongering article critical of the vaccine Pandemrix, one of the pandemic influenza viruses approved for use by the European Commission. It begins with a hugely inflammatory gambit:

UP to a million under-fives have been inoculated against the flu virus with a controversial vaccine containing poisonous mercury.

Thimerosal structure

3D structure of thimerosal, with the mercury atom shown in silver. Note that the mercury is with the structure of the thimerosal molecule.

The complaint from Johnston is one that is so familiar it should make any decent antiantivaxxer groan: Pandemrix contains thiomersal, an organomercury preservative. The (lack of) toxicity of thimerosal is well documented, but the antivax argument always runs along these lines: thimerosal contains mercury, mercury is toxic, therefore thimerosal is toxic. Of course, this simple reasoning fails to take into account the levels of mercury in vaccines (typically about 50ug per shot, way less than in an average serving of tuna), the fact that thimerosal is metabolized to ethyl-mercury and not methyl-mercury or elemental mercury, and the fact that no studies have ever implicated thimerosal in vaccines as being harmful.

Despite this, Johnston tries desperately to cling on to the old thimerosal canard, even bringing in acupuncturist and antivaccine doctor Richard Halvorsen for a quote, as well as Jackie Fletcher from “support group” Jabs. It just so happens that these three form a little antivax triumvirate, with Jabs hosting an article from Johnston on it’s website, which one again quotes Halvorsen. An example of circular journalism if ever there was one.

In the short term, I suggest inundating the article with comments explaining where Johnston is plain wrong. Although quite why the Express would have a staunch antivaxxer as their health editor is beyond me…