UK Roundup 23/2/2010

24 02 2010

It’s been rather a good start to the new year with some fresh shoots of sensibility starting to poke their heads above the murky soils of irrationality. In a follow-up to the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee meeting last year (see earlier article) to debate the value of investing taxpayers money into homeopathic treatments, the committee has quite clearly stated that they are a complete waste of time and that there was no scientific evidence that homeopathic remedies work.

Fresh shoots of sensibility at home yesterday

“There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing it is not efficacious,” the committee said. Committee members also said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic medicines to carry medical claims on their labels.

“We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers,” the committee’s report said. “The systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos,” One commentator (Edzard Ernst* in The Guardian) made a very good point regarding placebos “… placebo effects are unreliable and usually short-lived. Moreover, endorsing homeopathic placebos in this way would mean that people may use it for serious, treatable conditions. Furthermore, if we allow the homeopathic industry to sell placebos we should do the same for big pharmaceutical companies – and where would this take us? ”

Pretty damning stuff – it’s great to see such a strong response. It will be interesting to see what happens next in terms of funding but it’s not looking too good for those who wish to see UK taxpayers money spent on magic water – money that could instead be spent on treatments that are shown to be more effective than placebo. The response from the Homeopathic Establishment has been rather muted, probably because other than arguing based on anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect they haven’t really got a leg to stand on. A good result and hopefully one that will draw something of a line under the current debate. There’s a summary of various views here.

Another big issue has also recently seen some welcome resolution, and one that I hope will have some resonance with Kiwis (see Christiaan’s measles article below). Dr. Andrew Wakefield, author of a 1998 article in the Lancet medical journal which linked autism and bowel cancer with the MMR (measels, mumps rubella) vaccine, has been hauled over the coals by the General Medical Council in London which found that he acted irresponsibly and dishonestly in conducting his research. The paper has been withdrawn by the Lancet and Wakefield had also resigned from an autism centre he founded in Texas. The paper caused immeasurable harm as the numbers of children being immunised slumped and vaccinations in general became regarded with suspicion by many. That suspicion will take a long time to dispel but the dismissal of Wakefield’s paper is a huge boost.

So a very positive start to 2010 – now if we can only do something about the new series of Sensing Murder…

* in a not so good postscript, it seems Professor Ernst faces tough times and may have his complementary medicine unit at Exeter University shut down due to lack of funding. This is particularly bad news as he is, as far as I know, the only person who performs proper scientific tests on a range of alternative remedies and confirms or denies their efficacy as per his results, thus providing a very valuable service. More on this as things develop.

What’s Wrong With Catching the Measles!

22 07 2009
A child with Small Pox in Bangladesh 1973

A child with the now eradicated small pox in Bangladesh 1973

A recent article on the warning of a measles epidemic in New Zealand bought out some of the weird and wonderful ideas a (hopefully small) proportion of New Zealanders have about the measles.  What a polarizing subject it is!  The majority of people who were questioning the vaccination were taking what on the face of it is a reasonable stance in that the state should not be able to dictate health care to the public.

For a comprehensive discussion of the scientific reasons why such an argument is flawed I would suggest that you read the Science Based Medicine Blog.  But to summarize there are two principle issues namely herd immunity and risk.

There are members of the community who cannot have vaccinations due to age (such as babies) or due to medical conditions and therefore the only protection that they are afforded is herd immunity to avoid contracting preventable diseases.

Depending on the disease, for effective herd immunity the threshold for the percentage of the population to be immunized is between 75% and 95%.  Effectively, while there is a high number of immunized people, a parent who chooses not to immunize their child will be taking advantage of the herd immunity.  However, when to many parents refuse vaccinations the threshold drops to a point where the disease can thrive and even cause an epidemic.  Once an unvaccinated child contracts a disease they then have to deal with the next principle issue of risk.

The statistical likelihood of a child being harmed by a vaccine is considerably lower than if they actually contract the disease.  Diseases like the measles will cause a small proportion of children significant long term harm or even death due to pneumonia or brain swelling caused by encephalitis.  Such risks are dramatically reduced through the use of vaccination.  People with immunodeficiencies are far also more likely to suffer the extreme effects of these diseases.

So, when many parents refuse to vaccinate their children, it ends up putting many other children at risk.

That’s enough of the dry stuff.  I want to point out some of the pearl’s of wisdom out of the many anecdotal stories that came through the readers comments to the article:

Leigh # 4 asks:

“I would also like to question why the alternative homeopathic vaccination program that was available 20 years ago, which I used successfully, has been removed from the market? Yes, we middle-class parents like to question- and with very good reason!”

I can probably answer this one – it’s because injecting children with magic water does not vaccinate them against diseases!

Phil # 16 after accusing all studies that show the benefits of vaccines as being fraudulent stated:

“Please don’t vaccinate your children, they need to get measles, mumps, chicken pox etc. No-one wishes suffering for any child, but the human body needs to be exposed to these things to work correctly later in life. I believe, through years of research, that vaccinations may well be child abuse.”

So everyone who has had a vaccination and not subsequently contracted disease can not expect to have a body that works correctly later in life…show me the evidence.  Also, I would suggest you observe a child going through the discomfort of the measles, mumps, or the chicken pox – allowing your child to be inflicted with such diseases when they are preventable could also be argued as child abuse.

Les # 19 Does his best to totally butcher year 9 probability:

“Educated parents are aware of the risks, that’s why. A basic risk analysis will show the vaccine isn’t worth it. From the MOH own vaccination site: 1 in 1000 measles cases get inflammation of the brain so using 100 cases a year, it will take ten years before someone should have that complication. However, the same site shows the vaccine causes convulsions in one in 3000 recipients, and inflammation of the brain in 1 in a million. Assuming even 30,000 doses a year, thats at least 10 having convulsions. Not my child thank you”

So lets fairly compare 100 people who are not vaccinated and contracted the measles with 30,000 people who are given a vaccination…spot the imbalance!  In fact according the website if one thousand children contract the measles approximately one will get inflammation of the brain versus 0.001 children in one thousand who suffer inflammation of the brain from the vaccination (of course there still will be a small proportion of vaccinated people who get the measles – but usually because there is no herd immunity!).

Phil # 62 After providing an anecdote that shed no light on the discussion he said:

“Herd ammunity has been proven to be a load of hype, and cannot work. Outbreaks will always happen, and some cases will result in death. No vaccination campaign will ever stop that, even if you choose to believe it will. Vaccines are fraud. End of story, and the MoH knows this but will never back down in their promotion of it. So sad, for the millions who are harmed through vaccines. The diseases will happen anyway: it is not vaccines that has stopped them.”

And small pox just stopped itself…

I thought that Tim #31 gave a good summing up of the skeptical position:

“How is it that in this day and age we have people who believe that vaccines cause autism, 9/11 was carried out by the CIA, the moonlandings were a hoax etc etc. BUT they don’t believe the brain damage and harm the real diseases like measles can cause?

I am a ‘middle class, educated parent’ whatever that means. I say it is a crime not to vaccimate your kids when they are supplied free of charge by the government. What will happen when we have a polio outbreak? or worse… Just get the poor kids vaccinated NOW.”