“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a very delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”– Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
“I trust doctors, not know-it-alls.”- Kristen Bell
“Just because a baby dropped out of you doesn’t mean a PhD did.”- Pro-vaccination Facebook meme
Trusting doctors and scientists is the smart thing to do isn’t it? After all, they have had years, even decades of schooling and the information they learn in medical schools and PhD programs is absolutely proven- otherwise it wouldn’t be a part of the curriculum.
But what if it’s not?
What if the curriculum taught in universities and medical schools about medicine and disease prevention is influenced by politics, economics, and cultural biases?
Oh, that is a very scary place, isn’t it?
It means that the information we get from health officials and doctors may not be completely accurate. (Gasp! We might gain greater scientific knowledge in the future and find out some of our current medical practices are based on faulty assumptions- like bleeding patients and prenatal x-rays were. You mean we don’t everything right now?!) It means that profit motive could play a role in how medical treatment and procedures are administered and represented to us. It’s so scary that we would rather turn a blind eye and not examine that possibility and continue living in ignorance. And that brings us to agnotology- the study of willful acts to spread confusion or deceit.
Agnotology is a relatively new field of academic study and has yielded a great deal of interesting information about how businesses and even governments have used the deliberate spread of misinformation to keep people from understanding the truth about something. Quoting a LA Times article (where columnist Michael Hiltzik displays his own ignorance by claiming that people who oppose vaccination base their entire position on one discredited study): “The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.” From a BBC article on the tobacco company’s efforts to create confusion: “[Science historian Dr. Robert Proctor of Stanford University] had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking.” Remember, folks, there was a time when smoking was considered very safe- even by doctors- and a big part of that was deliberate efforts of the tobacco companies to discredit research that showed their products caused cancer.
How about another example of agnotology and medical science? From the late 1800’s to about the middle of the twentieth century so-called “racial hygiene” was considered a public health necessity. It did not originate from the Nazi’s in World War II, it was already being preached and practiced as the best way to maintain a healthy populace in both Europe and America. In fact, America was among the first countries to institute sterilization laws for those considered unfit to reproduce. That was in 1907. It would be a decade more before Germany began instituting such laws. Racial hygiene was taught as a fact in medical and nursing schools in Germany and other countries. It was held up by research from MD’s and PhD’s claiming that people of other races were intellectually inferior. Sterilization laws soon gave way to “mercy killings” of the mentally ill or disabled and soon to mass genocide of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other groups deemed to be a burden on public health. (I highly recommend reading all of the aforementioned link. It’s a summary of Dr. Proctor’s very comprehensive look at the how the Nazis influenced the medical system of Germany.)
So for all of you who loudly proclaim that you trust your doctors and do what they tell you because doctors and PhD’s know best, how about this? What would you do if your doctor told you it was a public health necessity to execute your neighbor because of her ethnicity? Or how about a special needs child? What about someone who was disabled or suffered depression? Would you be the type of person who steps back and says, “Now wait a minute. These people may not be like an artificial ‘ideal’, but their lives have value- many of them can have a very positive impact on our society if we let them. Even if the experts are saying one thing, they could be wrong.” Or would you be turning in your neighbor or handing your disabled family members over for a mercy killing because it is the “scientific” thing to do? If you have ever said that you vaccinate yourself and your child because you trust doctors and scientists, think very carefully about your answer. (Kristen Bell, care to field this one?)
Let’s take a look at vaccine information now. For those of you out there who are vaccine proponents and claim to believe in facts, logic and research, you should have absolutely no problem with comparisons of vaccine information distributed to parents with epidemiological research on the diseases and medical facts about the vaccines.
Let’s start with Hepatitis B.
The CDC’s information page for parents on Hepatitis B claims that “of the more than 1 million people in the United States living with lifelong Hepatitis B, most got the virus as a child” and that “When infants and young children are infected with Hepatitis B, they have 90% chance of developing a life-long, chronic infection”. The CDC says that Hepatitis B can be passed through more every day means such as chewing food to give to a baby, sharing toothbrushes and gum and touching open cuts or sores. Statements like these may give the impression that Hepatitis B is a disease that frequently affects children and that transmission outside of sexual contact, needle sharing and maternal transmission are also frequent phenomena.
However, reports of epidemiology presented at the National Institutes of Health Workshop on the Management of Hepatitis B show a different breakdown. Their statistics show that 45% of all new HBV infections in the United States are sexually transmitted, with injection drug use causing another 21% of cases and the remainder (33%) being cases of mother-to-child transmission occurring at birth or in the first few years of life. (pg. 20) Overall, the CDC statistics show that rate of HBV infection is very low in the United States and Canada, averaging 0.1 to 0.5% for current or chronic infection, however the rate of infection is much higher among native populations and Asian emigres. About 5% of Americans have been infected with the hepatitis B, but 90-95% of the time these cases are cleared by the immune system on its own, especially in adults. (See page 19 under the heading “Canada and the United States”.) Child-to-child transmission of hepatitis B (mostly through contact with open sores) has been well documented in developing countries. In the United States and other developed countries child-to-child transmission incidents have been extraordinarily rare, even in daycare and school. Urine and feces are not vehicles for transmission unless blood is present and oral transmission of hepatitis B is almost non-existent. (pg. 48 under heading “Risk of Hepatitis B Infection in Daycare Centers”.)
So notice that while CDC’s information for parents has some truth in it (that HBV can be spread through sharing personal care items and that children have a greater chance of developing a lifelong HBV infection than adults). However, there are a couple of big, glaring factual omissions here. One is that the overall rate of HBV infection in the United States is very low. This is not a common disease, so the chances of an individual in a low-risk population contracting are extremely low. The other omission is that almost all children who are infected with HBV contract the virus through mother-to-child transmission either at birth or in the first few years of life, so unless the mother is infected at birth or during the child’s first few years of life, the chances of a child contracting HBV are extremely low. The other thing they fail to mention is that incidences of child-to-child transmission of HBV are extraordinarily rare in the United States and other developed countries. This vaccination is becoming required by more and more states for entrance into kindergarten, but ironically enough parents and doctors can vaccinate all the kindergarteners they want, but the small number of children who are most at-risk for HBV infection will probably contract the infection at birth or before they enter kindergarten from their mothers. In other words, vaccinating kindergarteners for HBV is one of those feel-good measures that doesn’t actually accomplish much. The CDC’s information for parents on HBV is deliberately misleading.
Moving on, let’s take a look at pertussis next. The CDC says this about pertussis prevention:
“Pertussis (whooping cough) can lead to serious illness, needing treatment in the hospital, and death — especially in babies who are too young to be well-protected by vaccines. You can help protect your baby from pertussis by:
- Getting a pertussis vaccine (Tdap) if you are pregnant
- Encouraging those around your baby be up-to-date with pertussis vaccination
- Making sure your baby gets his pertussis vaccines on time”
But here is what they are not telling you about pertussis and pertussis vaccination:
- It is a medically documented fact that individuals who have been vaccinated for pertussis and contract the disease often don’t display any symptoms.
- On the CDC’s website there is a dispatch describing cases of pertussis in fully vaccinated Israeli children which resulted in the death of one vaccinated infant. The report examined 46 fully vaccinated children, five of whom tested positive for pertussis, though only two of those children met the World Health Organization’s diagnostic criteria for pertussis. The study concluded that even vaccinated, asymptomatic children can be carriers of pertussis.
- In Lithuania 53 children tested positive for pertussis in 2001. 32 of the 53 were fully vaccinated.
- The recent outbreak of pertussis in San Diego showed that many vaccinated individuals can still contract pertussis and pass it to babies too young to receive vaccines. Of the 1,000 adults and children who tested positive for pertussis in 2010, over half had been vaccinated.
- A survey of nine other counties in California showed that between 44 and 83 percent of individuals with pertussis had been immunized. Researchers from Amsterdam said they had found that the pertussis virus had mutated two decades ago. Currently, pertussis vaccines do not confer immunity against the mutated form. Vaccine makers have said that testing for the mutation wasn’t necessary.
- In 2002, vaccine proponent Arthur Allen wrote an article titled Bucking the Herd about the importance of vaccination to prevent the outbreak of disease. In his article, Mr. Allen stated that pertussis has become endemic in Boulder, Colorado and blames it on the high number of unvaccinated children there. He undermines his own argument, though, when he states “Although unvaccinated children are six times as likely as vaccinated children to get whooping cough during an outbreak, about half the cases in Colorado have involved vaccinated children…” If half the children in Colorado with pertussis have been vaccinated, then obviously they are not six times less likely to contract the disease. If vaccines actually are as effective as public health and medical authorities claim they are, then herd immunity shouldn’t make a difference in protecting vaccinated individuals. If vaccination rates drop, then vaccinated individuals should still be protected against the disease while unvaccinated individuals succumb to it. If vaccines can only work in a “sterile” environment where the pathogen is no longer present, then vaccines would be incapable of eradicating diseases.
I could go on and on with other diseases, but you get the idea. So let’s review here: the information that is distributed to parents from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control leaves out several very important facts and twist others to present an unrealistic picture of the risk for diseases and the benefits of vaccines. The doctors, scientists and public health professionals at the CDC are considered very educated about the spread of disease, so unless the people employed there are in reality extremely ignorant about diseases and their spread (and therefore unqualified for their positions), we can only assume that they are deliberately keeping parents from this information. Sounds like a subject worthy of agnotology.