Sometimes its not fun to be Skeptical in Vancouver

Sometimes living in a city like Vancouver where alternative medicine enjoys almost as much credibility as science based medicine, (a search of “alternative medicine in Vancouver brought 222 hits on yellowpages.ca) one can start to feel rather embattled by pseudo-science. It can be a very frustrating feeling.

For skeptics like myself, you almost take it personally when people display such a supreme lack of critical thinking that you start to suspect it’s done out of spite for some imagined wrong on your part.

How else could you explain that after nearly nine years Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced doctor who first published a paper indicating a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, was formally declared to be “dishonest” and “irresponsible” by the General Medical Council in England. And yet, rushing to his defence is a slew of anti-vaccinationist groups.

Never mind the fact that in the years after Wakefield’s paper, there was a money trail from him to legal firms that sued vaccine makers, or that his co-authors retracted their names from the study. Or that in all this time, no one was able to replicate his findings, and test and test and study after study only proved that vaccines didn’t cause autism and that they are far safer than not getting one and risking infection from a deadly disease.

Even when the Lancet, the medical journal that printed Wakefield’s paper retracted it…would that not demonstrate to people the false panic over vaccines Wakefield created wasn’t merited?

No, because people would rather get their medical advice from a guy who bends over and talks out of his butt.

So you might say, “Ethan’s disgust is an emotional response and has no connection to skepticism.” Well I can’t deny I have an emotional reaction to people like Wakefield, but that’s because they have become martyrs for pseudo science. In the face of overwhelming evidence they present a fringe theory and then insinuate that their lack of evidence is the result of a conspiracy against the public. They instigate distrust in science based medicine in general, the results of which can be deadly.

For example, it was with no level of surprise when I read about a story here in British Columbia about an outbreak of whooping cough in the Kootenay’s. Even after talking about this particular case on Radio Freethinker, and discussing it with my fellow skeptics at Skeptics in the Pub, I still couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Bordetella pertussis (bacteria that causes whooping cough)

For those that don’t know, whooping cough is a potentially deadly disease caused by the bacteria pertussis. It’s highly contagious and can last up to six weeks. During that time, the sufferer has a violent cough (thus the origin of the name). It is estimated that in the year 2000, there were 39 million cases of whooping cough and 297 000 deaths worldwide. Because of low immunization rates (mostly in developing countries), whooping remains on the biggest killers of children, despite being easily prevented.

There had been nearly two years since there was a case of whooping cough in the Kootenays, BC, but now there is 19. Yes, that’s right 19 cases of whooping cough. The outbreak was caused because of low vaccination rates. In this case, the vaccine is the DTaP-IV which protects against Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (whooping cough), and Polio.

In 2009, there was a study in the United States about whether children who did not receive the whooping cough vaccine were more likely to get infected with pertussis. Not surprisingly, children who received the vaccine were less likely to contract the illness.

Fast forward a year and we are now faced various outbreaks and a community so apparently rattled by anti-vaccinationists, they endangered the lives of their own children. Despite the fact that this free vaccine would protect the little ones from four potential child killers, some parents decided to ignore science and critical thinking. I wonder if they don’t use seat beats either?

I find it terribly depressing that perfectly treatable disease might resurface and do considerable harm because the drop in herd immunity reaches a new low. With too many people unvaccinated, the germ has the ability to mutate and spread. Over time it can jump to the people who normally can’t be vaccinated because they’re too old or young or have immune difficulties. And so the germ continues to evolve and spread.

People always ask me why I’m a skeptical activist, what’s the harm if someone believes that homeopathy helps them? What’s the harm if someone decides not to get vaccinated?

I could turn around and ask, why do you wear a seat beat? Why do you wear a helmet when you ride your bike? Or I could even point them in the direction of whatstheharm.net but I think the next time I get asked that question I’ll just have to pause.

As a skeptic it appears we must be constantly banging the drum of critical thinking and promoting science based inquiry. Because when I think hard about it, we got lucky. What if this had happened where vaccination rates were really low? Like 45%? What if it had been polio or small pox? What if it had happened in a big city with a large population? I would like to see a multipronged approach to teaching people about public health matters, much like we saw with the H1N1 pandemic. People like Andrew Wakefield have left such a negative impression on the public about medical science that we need to provide some serious education so that people can think rationally about medicine and science and not grumble about conspiracies and “Big Pharma” and risk infectious disease on their children.

One Response to “Sometimes its not fun to be Skeptical in Vancouver”

  1. Paul says:

    Unfortunately the popular media (print, radio, television) do not help. Frequently this type of issue is given the “fair and balanced treatment” where the anti-vaccination zealot’s opinions are given as being equal in truth to the evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines. This leaves the consumer unsure about which side is more credible.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.