MMR and our Risk-Averse Culture
posted: Friday November 28, 2008
Today the Health Protection Agency (HPA) reports
that 1049 cases of measles were reported in the twelve months ending
October 2008. This is the highest number of measles cases recorded
in England and Wales since the current method of monitoring the
disease was introduced in 1995.
Attributing this to the relatively low MMR vaccine
uptake over the past decade, the HPA press release includes the
"... there are now a large number of children
who are not fully vaccinated with MMR. This means that measles
is spreading easily among unvaccinated children."
"There is now a real risk of a large measles
epidemic. These children are susceptible to not only measles but
to mumps and rubella [German measles] as well."
"...there is now a real risk of a large
measles outbreak of between approximately 30,000 to 100,000 cases
- the majority in London."
So there we have it; some (now completely discredited)
research about the MMR vaccine, combined with sensational media
coverage, scared too many parents, who had probably never seen a
serious case of measles, into believing their children were at serious
risk of becoming autistic if they were given the MMR vaccine.
Yes, measles used to be some sort of 'rite of
passage' when I grew up in the fifties. Parents even used to hold
'measles parties' to ensure that their children contracted measles
(and thus future immunity) from an infected 'guest of honour'!
But measles can be very serious - even in a strong
and healthy child. The prospect of a major epidemic amongst a population
of largely unprotected children in a major city should definitely
not be taken lightly.
I'm no epidemiologist (no medical professional
of any kind in fact) but I believe that living in the increasingly
aseptic environment that we do, our immune systems are not challenged
enough to properly develop. Treatment of measles is certainly better
than it used to be, but the disease's severity might also be more
more serious amongst the modern population. Consider what happened
in the 1500s when Cortez and his Conquistadores introduced measles
and other endemic Euopean diseases into the previously unexposed
and thus vulnerable populations of Central and South America.
But I digress - it's the risk-averse nature of
our society that I'm banging on about here. We have become such absolute
masters of identifying - or misidentifying - a miniscule risk of
some sort (developing autism from the MMR vaccine, dying on a school
trip, eating a lamb chop pink, drinking red wine, not drinking red
wine, gardening with a slight skin abrasion, etc etc) that we have
lost sight of the fact that these risks are just part of life. So
we allocate hugely disproportionate time, effort and resources into
the nanny state.
Humans thrive on risk and adventure, always have,
always will. Let's not allow our common sense to get swept away
in the rush to make our lives risk-free. A measles epidemic would
be a tragic but perfect example of what happens when we ignore common
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