The leaven of the pharmacies

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Although pharmaceuticals in general provide us with a life span and standard of living that far surpass that in the Biblical era, controversies can still occur. Media that implicates new drugs in compromising the development of children can rapidly ignite public concern. These issues cause outrage because they effect the vulnerable, those individuals that have no choice but to rely on the judgement of others. Who in turn must have faith in pharmaceutical companies and the bodies that govern them. The problem with governing bodies is that individuals within them  are usually specialists who can be influenced by other interests or individuals. Also, responsibility is spread within a group, there is no single individual who has to take account of any misdemeanor.

In 1988 the MMR vaccine was introduced into Britain ten years later Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital, London, found that a bowel condition could be associated with autism in a study group of 12 children. Traces of measles virus were discovered in the intestines of these children but the data established an association rather than an effect. There was no evidence that the single measles vaccination would not behave in the same way, however though, the incidence of autism has increased in recent years. Many parents were concerned that the triple vaccine was harming their children. Autism can be related to other conditions and consequently it is fairly difficult for the disease to be linked to a particular vaccine. It is virtually impossible to prove a cause and effect. Even if in reality some individuals were more susceptible to autism after receiving the vaccine, it would be difficult to directly link the vaccine to the disease. Astonishigly, even though Wakefield did not specifically state that the MMR vaccine caused autism, the UK government, pharmaceutical companies and medical research bodies exploded into a retaliation that was completely disproportionate. He was forced to resign, accused of professional misconduct, struck off the medical register and several of his papers have been retracted by journals. This is quite disturbing for researchers, as it prevents them and scientific journals from publishing research that may attract controversy.

If there was an element of uncertainty in vaccinating individuals then why not stop the vaccines and go back to the old methods of vaccination or better still, offer both choices? After all, the old methods seemed to be fairly effective in preventing the spread of measles, mumps and rubella. Additionally, if both methods were available then it would be possible to compare the rates of autism in a greater population and therefore the epidemiology would be clearer.  Apart from the obvious financial considerations, the answer perhaps lies in the statistical way that governing bodies evaluate risk. If the risk of becoming autistic is below a significant level than it would be argued there is no risk in having the MMR vaccination even if that risk is double that of the single vaccinations. Several members of the public found that the potential risk, however small, of being permanently harmed by the MMR vaccine was greater than the risk of temporarily contracting measles and therefore chose not to vaccinate their children. In many areas only two in three children were vaccinated leading to concern that a measles epidemic could occur and result in disabilities or even fatalities. Media reporting had originally alerted parents to the potential of MMR in causing autism. In a survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council the majority of people discovered the controversy surrounding MMR by watching the television. In fact television is the most important means of communicating science controversy with science journals providing source information. So, could it be possible that sensational media coverage was responsible for the MMR controversy and that Wakefield was merely used as a scapegoat to counteract this?

The causative agent of Anthrax, Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Image: Centers for Disease Control.

A similar concern, that did not attract as much media attention, was the discovery that the anthrax vaccination, given to armed service personnel in order to protect them from Biological weapons, could cause miscarriages and premature births. If this problem had affected a greater percentage of the public it would naturally have been given more media attention.  As it happens, this could never have occurred as the product was not licensed for general release. Therefore, the only people who were likely to be at risk were also at greatest risk of encountering anthrax spores. Controversially, despite originally being an animal vaccine, the American and British governments claimed that animal reproductive studies had not been carried out. The incidence of birth defects, mainly associated with premature births, and miscarriages in the infants of American and British troops has increased since the anthrax vaccination program began. Initially in the early 1950’s, when the vaccination was licensed for use on humans, only male service personnel would have been vaccinated. In the 1990’s, when troops were vaccinated in order to go to the Gulf,  both men and women received the vaccine. The vaccine had already earned a bad reputation amongst service personnel for causing ill health.   In order to acquire complete immunity over three shots were required and many of those that received the vaccine voluntarily, failed to complete the course with some remaining ill and developing other symptoms. The vaccine was thought to be responsible for Gulf war syndrome, as countries that did not vaccinate their troops also did not have Gulf war syndrome.

Governments and pharmaceutical companies have again refused to acknowledge  accusations against the anthrax vaccine. Despite individuals having been administered the vaccine with no animal reproductive data being carried out those that have been detrimentally effected are again left to fight for justice. An ambivalent relationship between science, the media, regulatory systems and commerce once more creating an atmosphere of uncertainty. A parallel can be drawn by this situation and how Jesus described the leaven of the Pharisees. The persecution that Jesus endured for challenging corruption remains relevant to this day.