The War on Science

The Truth and the Alternative Facts of Pseudoscience

Ioana Manea
Science Editor

Vaccines cause autism, climate change is a government hoax, airplanes spread pesticides in the air, and antibiotics are the medicine to take to fight the flu. Welcome to the world of fake news and alternative facts.

Pseudoscience is on the rise and it is some of the institutions on which we used to rely on to refute false claims that are now spreading them. Indeed, the current leader of our neighbouring nation is skeptical about climate change and vaccines’ purpose, just like the Secretaries he has appointed at the head of the Department of Health & Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, is there any truth to these beliefs? The anti-vaccine movement was fueled by Andrew Wakefield’s study that made the now-discredited claim that autism is linked with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Other scientists were never able to reproduce the findings of the study, and a 2004 investigation by Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer revealed that Wakefield had financial conflicts of interest when conducting the research. On January 28th, 2010, a statutory tribunal of the General Medical Council (GMC) stated that three dozen charges were proven, of which four were counts of dishonesty and 12 were counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children.

In recent years, besides the Cutter Incident of 1995, there have been no legitimate vaccine safety concerns. The Cutter Incident occurred when some batches of the polio vaccine were given to the public while containing a live version of the virus which had not been identified by the required safety testing. Over 250 cases of polio were attributed to the vaccines made by Cutter Laboratories. The Cutter Incident exposed structural weaknesses in vaccine manufacturing and government oversight, and resulted in the development of a better system for vaccine regulation.

Besides the Cutter Incident, other reportedly infamous vaccine issues happened when vaccines had just been created. Comprehensive laboratory methods did not exist in the late 18th and 19th century. At the beginning, vaccines were maintained through arm-to-arm transfer and later though production on animal’s skin. Furthermore, it was impossible to sterilize syringes of bacteria. In addition, identification of the presence of pathogens was impossible until the late 19th to early 20th century. All those conditions made it possible for vaccines to be sources of contamination for erysipelas, tuberculosis, tetanus, and syphilis. Syphilis contamination, although rare (750 cases in 100 million vaccinations), made a lot of noise mainly because Dr. Charles Creighton, an outspoken opponent of vaccination, wrote a whole book claiming that vaccine was a cause of syphilis.

All the aforementioned problems concerning vaccines were caused by a lack of proper laboratory techniques and an introduction to the public without extensive research or trials. Nowadays, vaccine safety systems ensure that all vaccines are as safe as possible. Clinical trials are conducted before vaccines are made available. Post license studies are also conducted after the vaccine is approved and these often include groups of the population that are underrepresented in the clinical trials.

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