Monday, September 1, 2014

Of Vaccines and Conspiracies

Vaccine victim? A girl is carried into a hospital in Carmen de Bolivar, Colombia.
Vaccines are one of the great achievements of medicine. They've been fundamental to making scourges such as polio and smallpox little more than terrible memories. Vaccines employ a very simple principle: The immune system remembers, and upon exposure to a killed or disabled pathogen, the immune system develops defenses against that virus, bacteria or other microbe.

So, it's strange that vaccines - probably more than any other routine medical treatment - have generated lots
A girl gets vaccinated against the HPV virus.
(Photo: )
of opposition - particularly in the United States (where most conspiracy theories seem to be born). And Colombia is not free of such thinking - as the ongoing controversy over the Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine being given to young Colombian girls shows.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls HPV "the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI)." According to Cancer Research UK, HPVs cause about 90% of cervical cancers.

Dr. Carlos Francisco Fernández, director of the Colombian Association of Scientific Associations, says that each year cervical cancers kill about 6,000 Colombian women. But when a girl in Arauca Department got sick after receiving a second dose of the HPV vaccine, it caused national news. Of course, it's not impossible for vaccines to produce side effects. However, that girl likely also ate things which could have made her sick, played with other kids who could have transmitted illnesses and had certain genes which predisposed her to diseases.

At the end of May, dozens of young girls in Carmen de Bolivar started fainting. Soon, they were hundreds, exhibiting strange symptoms with no apparent cause. It's far from the first example of such mass sicknesses, particularly among groups of young girls and women, who are much more empathetic than males. With no apparent cause at hand, the media fixated on the HPV vaccine which many of the girls had received months previously. No matter that there was no real reason to connect the vaccine to the strange behavior. In fact, many of the girls had probably drunk the same water or eaten the same foods or seen the same movies before the fainting phenomenon. But, as far as I've seen, the media has not paid attention to those possible causes.

In fact, doctors found high levels of lead in the blood of several of the girls. HPV vaccine does not contain lead. Lead is a reasonable possible cause of health troubles.

In the United States vaccines in general have become the target of conspiracy thinkers, who blame them for many kinds of infirmities, particularly autism, despite having no evidence. In fact, autism, like other childhood diseases, commonly manifests itself about the same time that kids get vaccinated, creating an understandable but illogical association in the minds of distraught parents. The HPV vaccine, because of its sexual aspect, gets more than its share of criticism.

But blaming a vaccine for later health problems, when there's no rational cause and effect, is irresponsible fear-mongering.

When one event happens after another, all it means is that one thing followed another, not that the first thing caused the other. Saying differently without evidence is irresponsible and a real disservice to people's health.

Semana reports that experts from the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. visited Carmen de Bolivar and concluded that the girls' symptoms were something like mass hysteria. Among other things, they pointed out that girls who had not received the vaccine also experienced the fainting symptoms.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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