OPINION: Truth is abandoned in favour of an echo chamber of fabrications which leads us astray, and the kids will pay the price for our stupidity.
While the NZ school-based HPV vaccination programme ramps up for the ninth year some school boards are rejecting it, presumably because they know better than the World Health Organisation, every health ministry in every country, and every professional medical college, all of whom endorse this vaccine. What on earth could lead a group of well meaning individuals to eschew the Health Board experts and make such a decision?
Sadly, research shows that as long as information reinforces beliefs people will embrace it, regardless of its legitimacy. Folks with tendencies towards conspiratorial thinking will lap alternative facts and spread them on Facebook and Twitter like Typhoid Mary.
Even a thousand years ago it was recognised that human thinking was fallible and that it frequently led us astray. Ancient scientists developed the modern scientific method and the use of experiments to determine which ideas were likely to be true. Science is a truth tool and remains true whether you believe in it or not. This took has given us medicine, aeroplanes, microwave ovens, the internet, smartphones, and vaccines. Without science we would still reside in the dark ages where life was incredibly short.
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What does the scientific method have to do with a school or two declining to allow a vaccination programme to be delivered on its premises? Does it matter?
First, here are some established facts about human papillomavirus. Human papillomavirus infects most people at some point in their life, usually during the first few years of sexual debut (Yes, people have sex, even if you prefer to think that they don’t). Some types of the virus cause a range of cancers including cancers of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus and throat. Other types cause genital warts, a fact that thousands of kiwis face every year. Now we have the luxury of an incredible vaccine that prevents infection with this insidious little virus. Sadly some people do not want this cancer preventing vaccine for their children.
There have always been small groups of people who oppose vaccines. Their emotive and fallacious arguments have not changed in two hundred years. Over the years the activities of such groups periodically damage vaccine programmes by scaring people away from vaccinating. Invariably when the vaccine rates drop disease returns. It is a cycle that repeats time and time again. Today the anti vaccination lobby claim that the HPV vaccine is harmful. Is this fact or fiction?
It is total fiction, utter nonsense.
If the vaccine caused harm then when we compare harms between vaccinated and unvaccinated then we would predict to see more harm in the vaccinated people. Simple science?
Global studies with not just thousands; or tens of thousand of people, but studies with millions have been conducted just assessing the safety of this vaccine. The results are unanimous. HPV vaccine is extremely safe. However, despite the cumulative data supporting the safety of this vaccine those that seek to derail the programme fail to speak of it, as though it did not exist. Armed instead with pseudoscience manufactured by well-funded lobby groups, peppered with litigators hungry to lay their hands on vaccine compensation funds, the anti-vaxxers march on unwitting school boards and tell them they have found the hidden truth.
A school board choosing pseudoscience, because it finds favour with their beliefs, over science and global health recommendations must be grounded in the dark ages, a time where fervent beliefs in mystical things burned witches and hampered progress towards enlightenment. The victims of this ill-advised decision are the young people, some of whom will inevitably get disease.
Helen Petousis-Harris is a Senior Lecturer in Vaccinology at the University of Auckland and Academic Head of Immunisation Research and Vaccinology at the Immunisation Advisory Centre. She is also a member of the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety.