Passions, not prudence

passion flower by Nganguyen
Inflamed passions

[Via BBC News | Science/Nature | World Edition]

Why do vaccines trigger such passionate debate?

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Best quote of the month, perhaps the year. By Dr. Mike Fitzpatrick, a London GP:

“And while I am all for people questioning authority, it’s bizarre that we often reject the voice of science in favour of the purveyors of quackery.”

A large part of a healthy vaccination program is the recognition of its community benefits, not just individual ones. If enough people are vaccinated, not only to they protect themselves from disease but herd immunity can slow down the progression of the disease enough to prevent people who either failed to get vaccinated or are not in a position to be vaccinated (i.e. too young) fro getting sick.

As this article demonstrates, even vaccination of 20-25% of children against flu can result in protection of up to 18% of the population over the age of 35. Simply vaccinating those most likely to spread the disease can have a serious impact on the entire population.

Many people today think only of themselves when it comes to immunizations, something that is almost the opposite of how vaccination was approached not too long ago. It was seen as a community effort, one that would protect the weakest as well as the strong.

Striking a balance between the social good of a vaccination program and the individual good, along with the risks of each, is a necessary part of deciding a proper course. With an illness such as smallpox or polio, the benefits are easy to see. It might be harder for something like HPV, which can reduce or eliminate an entire form of cancer but only for a few and only 30-40 years down the road.

Flu kills thousands and pandemic influenzas kill millions. But the deaths often appear widespread and somewhat indirect. People often die from pneumonia brought on by the flu, for instance. However, the swine flu is highly infectious and very transmissible, much more than the seasonal flu. So it is very likely that a huge number of people will get sick.

They might not die from it but the increased morbidity rate (which could reach 40% of the population) could have a huge impact on our health system, potentially overwhelming hospitals and resulting in a degradation of care, perhaps even for those who are not directly infected by the influenza virus. Millions of people seeking hospital care would have a definite impact.

By all measures we now have, individual risk from the vaccine is low (i.e. it is produced in the same way as seasonal flu vaccines) while the social benefits, even if we only look at morbidity and economic effects, could be huge.

Seems like an easy choice.