An opinion piece by Dr. Paul Offit, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the Wall Street Journal: “The Anti-Vaccination Epidemic” points out the impact that misinformation has had on vaccination rates in the US, and Japan. He observes that “not enough children had died” in outbreaks of whooping cough in Washington State (2012 1300% increase in cases – but apparently no deaths in 2012). A similar event in Japan, where vaccination rates dropped from 80% to 10% in the late 1970’s resulted in 13,000 cases and 41 deaths.
An excellent program on PBS/Nova, “Vaccines: Calling the Shots” goes into depth on the issues emerging in this area. To attain “Herd Protection”, 85% of the individuals need to be vaccinated, so dropping from historical levels in the 90% range below this magic percentage sets the affected communities up for epidemic impact. In effect, the choice of some parents to not have their children vaccinated increases the risk, not just for their children, but also for others in the community — those where the vaccine does not provide sufficient protection or those who are allergic or unable to use the vaccines.
But here is the real question I see us face from a Technology and Society view point — how do we communicate effectively to the public to get them to take responsible action? This issue emerges with vaccination, with climate change, and with other areas where technology plays a role in the problems or in the solutions.
Andrew Wakefield, who published the initial papers asserting a relationship between vaccination and autism has been discredited, and stripped of his medical license. But the incorrect and fraudulent information in these papers has continued to influence sufficient parents to create risk situations. Unfortunately a sticky lie (meme) can propagate more effectively than a boring truth — a reason why ugly rumors in negative political campaigns have more traction than simple facts. Is the “Right to Lie” protected free speech? Is anti-vaccination or anti-climate change rhetoric a threat to public safety that warrants the “crying fire in a theater” exemption to free speech?
The longer term question is how to we effectively communicate factual data — and perhaps a pre-requisite is develop critical thinking skills in the public– so that folks will make well informed decisions in the public interest?