Editorial: Discredited claim still wounds

Last updated 05:00 18/02/2014

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OPINION: People opposed to vaccination have some powerful weapons on their side. Parents don't like to see their children being jabbed with needles. They naturally worry that vaccinations can hurt their children rather than saving them from disease. It is all too easy for the anti-vaccination brigade to prey on these fears.

When ''experts'' claim that vaccines are dangerous, however, the effect on ordinary people and their children can be disastrous.

When The Lancet medical journal published an article in 1998 linking the triple vaccine for measles lumps and rubella with autism, there was hell to pay. Many parents simply stopped allowing their children to be immunised - and who can blame them?

The Lancet, after all, is one of the giants of world medical opinion. If it said vaccines were dangerous, ordinary people were inclined to believe it. Unfortunately, too many people still believe this, years after the claim by Andrew Wakefield was discredited. Now research suggests that ''Wakefieldism'' continues to cause harm throughout the globe, including here in New Zealand.

The Council on Foreign Relations, a British think tank, found that increases in the incidence of measles in wealthy countries are due in part to Wakefield and his followers. Wakefield's claims continue to influence people long after his research was discredited by scientists and after the British Sunday Times uncovered financial conflicts of interest.

It is as though the alarmist message continues to live even after its official demise. Wakefield himself continues to push his theory, although he does not apparently oppose vaccination. This is the familiar story of the scientists whose emotional attachment to his findings is so deep that he cannot let it go even when shown to be wrong.

Ordinary people were in no position to know whether Wakefield was right when he published or even to know that he was wrong following the failure to replicate his research. We are, quite simply, at the mercy of the experts - and experts are fallible. And we naturally fear for our children's welfare.Hence the endless lobbying by anti-vaccine lobby groups and similarly misguided people who oppose fluoridation of water. The anti-fluoride gang flies in the face of the bulk of scientific opinion, yet it can still cause trouble and influence policy.

Last June a tribunal of Hamilton City Council voted 7-1 to remove fluoride from the city water supply. Fortunately, this decision was overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum held at the time of the October local body elections. Perhaps this was a case of the ''wisdom of crowds''.

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Certainly the earlier decision against fluoridation was, as Waikato medical officer of health Felicity Dumble put it, ''an example as to why it's not a good idea to use tribunals, which grossly over-represent the position of small interest groups, when it comes to making public health decisions for the whole city''.

Misguided lobbyists, in other words, can cause almost as much harm as misguided or mistaken medical experts.

- The Dominion Post

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