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A dose of reality

Why better science communication is needed in the discourse around vaccines

Let’s be honest, do you remember the last time you were vaccinated? For many students, unless you study a subject like immunology, chances are you don’t tend to think about vaccines on a daily basis – or at all. However, the vaccination issue has been at the forefront of media coverage lately, due to incidents like the recent outbreak of mumps in the NHL, or the measles outbreak at Disneyland California, which infected over 100 people, including ten confirmed individuals living in Lanaudière, Quebec. In fact, none of the 10 individuals from Quebec infected with measles had been vaccinated, due to religious or philosophical reasons.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, there continues to be a prevalent and dangerous public distrust in them. A recent poll found that 20 per cent of Ontarians believe certain immunizations, such the shot to prevent Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR), causes autism. While this belief is shared by more people in the U.S., it is contributing to the reappearance of preventable diseases, as many parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children.

Much of this anti-vaccination movement can be traced back to a 1998 study published by disgraced researcher Andrew Wakefield, who falsely pointed to MMR vaccines as a cause of autism. His unethical study, in which he fabricated evidence for financial reasons, has since been discredited by the scientific community. Since then, several studies have established that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism, a finding which the scientific community fully endorses. Though discredited, the residual effects of Wakefield’s paper are still felt today, adding to the public’s confusion when it comes to vaccinations.

So why does this disconnect between scientific knowledge and public knowledge still exist?

According to Brian Ward, a professor in McGill’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, “Many [parents] are not so much anti-vaccine as pro-their-own-children, and they are very concerned to not take risks.” He continued, “The principal problem is that parents with kids who have autism are desperate [to find] some reason, and MMR in particular is delivered at a time when the first diagnosis of autism is made. So in lots and lots of peoples’ minds, if something is linked temporarily they believe it is a causal relationship rather than a coincidence.”

When it comes to the debate about vaccine safety, Ward was quick to emphasize that the fact that the risks of not getting vaccinated far outweigh the safety risks of vaccines. “There are risks to anything! But you can’t compare the risks of vaccination to the risks of nothing […] If it’s compared to nothing then anti-vaccine people are always correct […] You have to compare the risk of vaccinations to the risks of the natural disease and how likely you are to get it, in which case anti-vaccine people are always wrong.”

Ward notes that a major problem is the readily available information on the internet to which well-intentioned parents have access. “The anti-vaccine websites are extraordinarily frightening. They appear to be very reasoned, very carefully thought out arguments against vaccines. The trouble is they interpret information in ways that are really not evidence-based or true at all.” Marianna Newkirk, also a professor in McGill’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology and in the faculty of Medicine, similarly points to the “media stirring up” the general public’s belief in a conspiracy theory.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, there continues to be a prevalent and dangerous public distrust in them.

But terrible science translation just doesn’t seem to be going away, especially when it comes to vaccinations. For example, take the latest controversy surrounding the Toronto Star, where the publisher had to make a public apology for an article that presented a series of anecdotes painting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil, as dangerous to women. The Star’s article embodies everything that is wrong with science journalism: not only does it disregard the scientific evidence that HPV vaccines are safe and effective, but it comes at a time when HPV inoculations are very low in Canada, increasing the potential to turn more people away.

However, this is not just a media problem. The ivory tower of the academic world has also been implicated, most recently with the uproar over a professor at Queen’s University, Melody Torcolacci, who came under fire for presenting anti-vaccination material in her lectures. “If it’s something being taught to teach a lesson that’s one thing, but if it’s being taught as the truth it’s so scary,” said Newkirk in response to the anti-vaccination slides. The accusations of anti-vaccination lectures in an academic setting are scary; not only does it validate the continuation of the anti-vaccination discourse, it also questions how academic institutions educate and train future scientists, physicians, and public health workers.

Currently, communication is undervalued and neglected as an essential skill for science students, who need to be able to communicate their research and address issues effectively. Recently, one of the only science communication courses at McGill (REDM 399 Science Writing) was discontinued. Furthermore, there are no courses focused on improving communication between scientists and the public, who fund the majority of science research.

“There just isn’t enough of it,” said Newkirk regarding incorporating science communication education, specifically with medical students. She would like to see more courses where students are forced to think about these controversial issues in a more critical way, but also understands the barriers that come with large and demanding class schedules, something third year McGill medical student Steve Roy is familiar with. “I feel we do receive an appropriate level of training about vaccines, their utility, and educating parents about them. I think we can always have more training on how to educate patients and trainees, but I recognize the time limit [of] an already dense curriculum” he said. Roy added that he would love to see more workshops geared towards science communication.

So how can we bridge this science communication gap? According to Newkirk, it will take a collaborative effort that involves scientists “[reasoning] and presenting data in an appropriate and honest way,” and “educating journalists” on how to understand and present research. Newkirk also believes it’s important for students to engage in outreach efforts, such as facilitating discussions within the community to address issues like the importance of vaccines. For those students thinking “I’m not a parent or science student, and this doesn’t apply to me,” Ward has a strong message: “Get that damn vaccine booklet before your parents throw it out. [Students] have no idea what their vaccination history is. They have no idea if they’re vaccinated! Every young adult has to take responsibility.” By not knowing your vaccination history, you are putting yourself and others at risk, so check out the McGill website to see what vaccines are recommended for students, or better yet, go see your doctor, because we can all use a dose of reality.