Monday, July 26, 2010


Boy does this seem a hot topic nowadays. So emotional.

Let's get to the point here.

Everything (above a certain dose) that goes into your body has an effect. These effects are different for different people. Hence the effects are measured as risk factors. You have to weigh up that risk factor vs the risk of NOT having that substance.

For example, I get migraines. (A migraine being a headache so painful it causes you to throw up.) I can prevent a migraine with aspirin. (I'm lucky.) Aspirin has potential side effects. I weigh those side effects up against the pain I suffer. I consult my doctor and we agree on my prevention and treatment. I know what happens if I don't prevent a migraine. I suffer. My worst was 16 hours of throwing up and ended up getting a morphine injection. My risk of not taking aspirin is in my face. So I take the risk. (And anyway, the risk is small with aspirin.)

Vaccines prevent horrible illnesses. They also have a risk of other effects. However the diseases they prevent can have very severe effects. Mainly death, brain damage, or disfigurement (talk to a polio victim about vaccinations).

Many years ago when those diseases (e.g. smallpox) were in everyone's face and killing people, everyone understood the risk of not having the vaccine. That side of things is not seen anymore.

Until poor Dana died of whooping cough and her parents saw it. A disease which my mum remembers since she nursed dying whoping cough infants.

The reason people trivialise mumps, rubella, whooping cough, polio, measles, smallpox, diptheria, tetanus, TB etc is because they have no personal experience of what it's like to have it. Hence they see zero risk. This then makes the (much smaller) risk of vaccine side effects much larger in their eyes.

But in fact it's not.

Now doctor's see these diseases. They seem them in training, they see them re-occur in their practices. And I'm sure it's a rare doctor that doesn't make recommendations on what they genuinely believe.

So look at the facts:

Autism is not caused by vaccinations. Period.
Vaccinations can cause side effects (as can any drug).
The risk of those effects is small.
The disease being prevented has a risk of doing permanent damage or killing you.
You have forgotton or never experienced that disease. Hence you downplay the risk. This is a huge mistake. Pick a disease and go look at the figures.
Compare those with the risk factors of the vaccine.

Leave your emotion at the door.

Make a decision.

Here's mine:

Get every vaccine of a disease that can kill or maim and that is also a realistic risk in your country. (e.g. I haven't been immunised against smallpox and I wouldn't bother with chickenpox if I hadn't had it already).

Don't trifle with mumps or measles. I've had them both. Mumps is the worst illness I have ever had and measles can give you brain damage.

Flu shot: if you're old - yep. If you're young and healthy and you can handle being on your back with a severe fever for two weeks. Don't worry about it. (And if you've ever had genuine influenza - you probably will remember it and would take the needle :-)

And one last thing. For those young babies or those with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated - they rely on herd immunity. Us being vaccinated so the disease isn't around. That prevents them being sick. They have no choice.

So if you're on the borderline - think of them and maybe that might tip you over.

Monday, July 19, 2010


I recently participated in an astronomy conference here in Hobart and the Governer gave a speech to kick it off. Now I have to admit I was expecting a dry and somewhat uninteresting performance but I was pleasantly surprised to hear a lucid, funny and hard hitting orator drive home his point.

His major issue being that if you are going to progress (in astronomy) you have to get your message across to the public in an understandable manner.

This of course doesn't apply only to astronomy but to just about everything.

That evening, delegates had a reception at the Governer's residence (read castle) and as we were all milling around, drinking expensive wine and wondering what the poor people were doing, up walks Peter Underwood AC, Governer of Tasmania (and ex Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Tasmania) to have a chat. He wasn't working the room of course, he just saw that our group looked the most intelligent and decided to join us. :-)

I complimented him on his speech and I wanted to discuss his main point. He gave me a legal example of how technical terms can be a problem. "For example", he started, "If I was representing you legally and I said..." (legal jargon that I didn't understand) "...then all you would probably think is dollar signs".

And he was right.

At this point I said: "We have a the same problem. In your profession you have a very strict definition of evidence. Things that don't meet a certain criteria cannot be used in court." He agreed completely.

"In science", I continued, "we have the same thing. The rules of scientific evidence are equally strict."

"And", I concluded, "the general public typically hasn't a clue about either".

He thoroughly agreed and suggested we needed to get together and solve this world problem. I told him I'm free on Saturday and I'll pop over.

(I didn't show, so he's probably not speaking to me anymore.)

Anyway, the point of all this is that generally speaking most people have different views of what evidence is. e.g. "My uncle Norm saw this bright light in the sky" means "aliens exist". "X is written in (some book)" means "X is true". "Fred saw John holding a gun" means "John is guilty".

I think a lot of the world's issues today are because different people accept different levels of evidence as true. People aren't typically dumb (well mostly), they just accept as evidence what others may reject.

It is a useful exercise to learn and understand what is accepted as evidence in science and as evidence in law. These definitions help to weed out knowledge from heresay.

Remember that next time you are taking an antibiotic or are appearing in court and then you'll really appreciate that some people take the time to get it right.