Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

The rise of the anti-vaccination lobby shows that we all need to play our part in the battle against bad ideas

Regressive ideas cannot just be wished away. The direction of ideological travel is, at present, going completely the wrong way, and it must be robustly confronted

Measles, mumps and rubella vaccines sit in a cooler (AP)
Measles, mumps and rubella vaccines sit in a cooler (AP)

A decade ago Andrew Wakefield was a man in disgrace. The British former doctor had led a campaign against the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccination in the UK, linking it to incidences of autism in research that was subsequently discredited.

Struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) in 2010, Mr Wakefield was comprehensively rejected by the scientific community. Sadly, the self-proclaimed anti-vaxxing movement didn’t stop there.

In a sign of the times, Wakefield has rebuilt his life, both professionally and personally, in the US.

Reports claim he now lives with the world-famous model Elle Macpherson, who is now a well-known lifestyle and “wellness” campaigner.

While Wakefield does not practice medicine in the US, he still champions the views that ended his career in Britain.

Moving to Texas, he found a land ripe to embrace his message. It is estimated that in 2016 alone, parents refused permission for 45,000 Texan children to be given the MMR jab.

Measles is potentially lethal and can lead to brain damage. Even if children survive it unscathed, which the overwhelming majority do, it is as unnecessary as it is unpleasant. I remember losing more than a week of my childhood, confined to a darkened room drifting miserably in and out of fever.

Younger people have by and large been spared that ordeal, especially in the western world. The United States declared the disease eliminated in 2000.

At the time of the GMC decision in 2010, Michael Fitzpatrick, a doctor and author, estimated that 6,000 children had missed out on vaccines owing to Wakefield’s work.

The internet undoubtedly played a role in swelling that figure and accelerating the spread of Wakefield’s dangerous and irresponsible ideas.

Almost 400 cases of measles were reported in the US in 2018. This year, that figure has already exceeded half that number.

Human beings have always latched on to fads and fashions, and that applies to ideas as much as anything else. Take bamboo cups and plates, low-carb diets and “mindfulness”, for example.

The problem with anti-vaxxers like Wakefield is at an entirely different level – one that has not been properly addressed yet.

The US philosopher Nicholas Chrisakis has recently published a book titled Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. Its central idea is that human nature is inherently self-improving. In spite of occasional regressions, human history is evolutionary and bound towards progress.

Chrisakis makes the case that because of this, mobs of people who propagate and endorse false arguments are bound to end up playing a losing part in the established order.

He has also taken to Twitter to knock the anti-vaxxers for their role in the spread of entirely preventable diseases. In a tweet last month, he advised people such as Wakefield to “take a bow” for their part in the return of measles.

The world is still progressing and great scientific discoveries continue to be made, but too many individuals are rewarded for modern-day charlatanism

Christakis also has personal notoriety from his role in a headline-grabbing episode of mob behaviour in recent years. Blueprint was written during a sabbatical after a controversy at Yale University when Christakis’s wife wrote a letter on the matter of campus free expression, related to students’ choices of Halloween costumes. Much consternation followed.

The truth, however, is that regressive ideas cannot just be wished away. The direction of ideological travel is, at present, going completely the wrong way, and it needs to be robustly confronted.

Obviously, the world is still progressing and great scientific discoveries continue to be made, but too many individuals are now rewarded for modern-day charlatanism.

A febrile distrust and fear of hidden dangers lurking in established science is rising. Rumours took years to spread when passed via word of mouth. Now, they can take just hours to conquer the planet.

In an era where we all spend hours online every day, the MMR saga demonstrates a fatal flaw of contemporary life. Institutions such as the GMC were a firewall between the public and bad ideas until not so long ago, but now their effectiveness has been greatly diminished.

The flipside of Wakefield’s disgrace should not be a glamorous and affluent existence, directing deeply questionable documentary films, which he has recently done. Thinkers such Christakis and society at large must fight harder against the great leap backwards.

Updated: May 30, 2019 12:12 PM

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