Archive for June, 2012

Jun 05 2012

Education and Vaccine Uptake

A new study, not published but to be presented at a meeting, purports to show that after the infamous Andrew Wakefield 1998 Lancet article alleging a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, vaccination rates in the US declined by about two percent. This may seem like a small amount but has an effect on public health, and vaccine refusal typically occurs in pockets that bring vaccination rates below the level needed for “herd” immunity, allowing for outbreaks.

This, however, is all old news. There are two other pieces of information in the study that are interesting. The first is that the decrease in vaccination rates did not rebound after Wakefield and his Lancet study were thoroughly refuted. That genie was out of the bottle, and correcting the misinformation did not have the desired effect of putting it back in. This too is in line with other research and experience. It is easier to spread fear than reassurance. Once rumors are spread the damage cannot be undone.

The study also purports to find that the there was an inverse relationship between education level and vaccine use – college-educated mothers were less likely to vaccinate their children. Further, in the 8 years after the Lancet study this gap increased. This education-gap is also in line with previous research, but needs some explanation. We need to distinguish unvaccinated from undervaccinated, and vaccine non-compliance from vaccine refusal. When looking at the undervaccinated, and specifically those who missed scheduled vaccines, this correlates with lower socioeconomic status and less education. This is in line with a more general pattern – the fewer resources a family has the less likely they are to avail themselves of available health care.

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Jun 04 2012

Legislating Science in North Carolina

The history of governments meddling in the practice of science is not a good one. The most infamous case is that of Lysenkoism -Stalin backed the ideas of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. His ideas became of the official sanctioned science of the Soviet government. Genetics was declared a “bourgeois science,” or “fascist science,” and many geneticists who disagreed with Lysenko were executed or sent to labor camps. Execution tends to have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and the practice of science. Over seven decades later genetic science in Russia is still lagging behind.

In the US we have a similar problem – not the Gulag, but political factions that disagree with certain findings of science that are ideologically inconvenient for them. The two biggest issues being targeted (but certainly not the only ones) are evolution and climate change. Much of the focus has been on what should be taught to students in science class (my vote is for science).

Recently the North Carolina legislature proposed House Bill 819 to study the effect of climate change on sea levels, and therefore coastlines. For some reason the legislators felt the need to include in the bill specific restrictions on how the science can be done. Section 2 includes this line:

These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

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