The vaccine debate: an update

Almost 4 weeks after my local newspaper published a version of this article on where I stand in the great vaccine debate, the letters are still pouring in to the Editor. While I’m glad my article has sparked this debate at a local level, I’m saddened to see so many people denying the value of vaccines.

The ability that the internet has given us to research diverse topics from the comfort of our own sofa is remarkable in so many ways, but it also means that an awful lot of parents are being led to believe that they are making informed choices about vaccines.

I agree that knowledge is power, of course I do. Arming yourself with the facts is absolutely essential when making any decision. But how can parents be sure that the ‘facts’ they’re busy googling are indeed based on solid scientific evidence? They can’t until they learn about the validity of clinical trial design and have a good understanding of statistics. Sadly, people will always be swayed by anecdotal accounts.

It would seem that there are some people that will never be convinced of the need to vaccinate. All I can say to them is, please read this article:


Then read this one:


And finally, this one:



Trip trap, trip trap. Who’s that walking over my bridge?

Trolls, it would seem, lurk everywhere. They pounce when you least expect it and not just in the digital realms.

This weekend, I had my first experience of a troll. At least, that is how I am choosing to categorise him. I knew when I wrote this piece and submitted it to my local paper that not everybody would agree with me. Vaccination is an emotive subject for many and every man and his dog has a tale of woe to tell about it.

Now, educated debate I can handle. Constructive criticism is a way of life for a writer. If we are ever to improve our craft, we need honest feedback and guidance on how we could have done things differently. But personal insults are never called for.

Sadly, that is exactly what happened this weekend. An individual, passionate about the evils of vaccination decided to pepper his response to my article in a letter to the Editor with abuse that called for readers to ‘treat me with the contempt with which I deserved’, claimed I was an ‘apologist’ for vaccine manufacturers and ‘to get out more’.

Okay, so worse things have been said at sea. I was prepared to just laugh it off and leave him to stew in  his own bile. But the inaccuracy of his arguments against vaccination really started to get under my skin. This was an area I felt passionate about and I just couldn’t let it lie.

So I have responded. I made sure to spell his name correctly (a courtesy he failed to extend to me) and I simply stated the facts about Andrew Wakefield, subsequent studies into MMR and autism and the realities of herd immunity. I resisted serving a volley of abuse back.

So my question to you, dear readers, is this: Do you feed the trolls in the hope that nourishing them with good, wholesome facts will enlighten them? Or do you walk away hoping everyone will see them for what they are?


Tuesday Tonic: Going underground

When we lived in London, I had a real love hate relationship with the tube. I adored the retro tiles still visible in some stations, enjoyed the architecture when I had a moment to stand and stare and marvelled at the ginormous feats of engineering that were the escalators. But when it came to sitting on the seats or touching the handrails, my inner microbiologist squirmed at the thought of what lay hidden to the naked eye.

So it was with morbid fascination that I read this article in the New York Times, which reported on a study looking at the bacteria found in air samples collected from the New York subway.

Surprisingly, there was nothing extraordinary to be found. No new species of superbug waiting to be discovered by Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles, nothing derived from ectoplasm that would necessitate a call to Ghostbusters.

The most stomach churning discovery was that a fifth of the identifiable bacterial species “probably came from human skin — our heels, heads and forearms, mostly”. Not surprising really, but enough to make you feel a touch bilious if you stop and think about it for long enough.

I wonder if the same type of results would be found if a similar study was conducted in our dear old underground?

The London underground map of the 1930s designed by Harry Beck – could easily be turned into a taxonomy diagram for all the bacterial just waiting to be discovered…

Friday Frolic: An illustration of inflammation

After a busy week writing about inflammation, I stumbled across this great video. I love this style of sharing information and we incorporated something similar in the house video for PAN that sits on their homepage.

I’m going to have to try very hard not to spend the rest of the day exploring the other videos Armando has done. Brings back memories of studying for anatomy with the Anatomy Colouring In Book – very therapeutic. Happy Friday everyone!


Tuesday Tonic: Life is fragile

Having just finished writing an article on vaccination and comparing it to wearing a seatbelt, this Nissan Vases campaign really resonated with me.

I normally wouldn’t give car adverts a second glance, but it’s funny how good creative can make you sit up and take notice and make the brand seem relevant to you.

Seatbelts, airbags, vaccinations: all pretty good ideas that can save lives.


Suspicious science

If there’s one thing that sets my teeth on edge more than any other, it’s companies/products/individuals making claims without any solid scientific fact or research.

Just last week, my dad (hi dad!) sent me a link to a page he’d found with numerous claims regarding a humble vegetable. Now, there’s no denying that vegetables are good for you. Full of essential vitamins and other nutrients, vegetables should feature in everyone’s diet.

But chopped up, soaked in water overnight and the resulting mush used to cure diabetes? I think not. Apparently, this website claims you will see remarkable results within 2 weeks. Even better, this vegetable soaked in water concoction will also act as a probiotic and give you bouncy hair. Pfft.

I’m not even going to link to the offending website. They’ll receive no traffic from here that’s for sure.

It seems that food vendors are particularly guilty of this brand of suspicious science. Acai berries, pomegranate juice, raw cacao, seaweed, blueberries, sweet potatoes and whole grains have all been touted as magical superfoods. The trouble is, there’s rarely any credible science behind these claims and what little science there is, is often exaggerated or misrepresented.

A fellow medical writer once told me that his golden rule for including or excluding any particular food in/from his diet is simply to look for an ingredients label. If it reads like a shopping list for a chemistry lab, it’s out. Thankfully, the term ‘superfood’ is now banned under EU legislation unless credible research can be shown to prove the claim. Sadly, it hasn’t stopped the marketing of food as a miracle cure for any particular ailment. Marketing has seriously messed up our relationship with food, giving us bigger packs ‘to share’ (yeah, right), promoting immune boosting yoghurt drinks that do little more than rot your teeth or the sugar substitutes that trick your taste buds in a way that sends you in search of even more sugar.

Now, I know some of you might be thinking this is all a bit odd from a writer that specialises in healthcare marketing. But the difference between what I do and what food promoters do is huge. Everything I write for pharmaceutical products is backed up by years of research, randomised clinical trials and must adhere to the UK ABPI code of conduct. No claim can be made that cannot be substantiated by clinical trials in humans. There are no fairytales or fabricated stories.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with the humble apple. Unless it’s very red and shiny and has been brought to you in a cottage in the woods by an older lady who has not weathered well. In that case, avoid the apple and run away. Fast.



Tuesday Tonic: Jobbies!

{Tonic: (noun) something with an invigorating effect}

Last week was all about boobs. This week, we’re all about poo at Highland Tonic.

I stumbled across this little ditty all about raising awareness for bowel cancer screening and just had to share it with you all. If nothing else, it’s a great way for all you non-Scots to learn about the word jobby.

Listen, enjoy and share with your friends and family. And I refuse to apologise if it becomes the soundtrack to your thoughts for the rest of the day.


Monday Malady: Measles

As a healthcare writer and a mum, my knowledge of many things medical has on occasion been called upon by friends and relatives. I never proclaim to be an expert on diagnosis, but now and again a friend will ask for advice. Usually about vaccines.

I’ve been asked about the whopping cough vaccine, the flu vaccine, but most of all the MMR vaccine. Were we allowing our children to be vaccinated? Was I happy that the claims linking MMR to autism really were false? Surely, there’s no smoke without fire? In 2006, 8 years after Andrew Wakefield published his now-discredited paper, my friends were still more fearful of the MMR vaccine than of measles, mumps or rubella.

Many of us could remember having measles or mumps as a child. It didn’t seem that bad. No worse than chickenpox surely. So why were we being asked to subject our precious babies to the (albeit transient) trauma of vaccination? Were these childhood diseases not just part of childhood and a good way to strengthen the immune system?

No. They’re not just a part of childhood. Or at least they don’t have to be thanks to the MMR vaccine. Those of us that can remember having measles or mumps as a child were lucky. We probably weren’t malnourished or immune deficient, otherwise we would have been at risk of developing pretty serious complications. Up until the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988, measles was a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the UK. Between 1970 and 1983, more than half the acute measles deaths that occurred were in previously healthy children who had not been immunised (Miller CL (1985) Deaths from measles in England and Wales, 1970–83. BMJ (Clin Res Ed) 290(6466): 443–4.)

Otitis media (7 – 9% of cases), pneumonia (1 – 6%), diarrhoea (8%) and convulsions (one in 200) were common complications of measles and in 1993/94, a measles epidemic, affecting the west of Scotland, led to 138 teenagers being admitted to one hospital.

Following the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988 and uptake levels in excess of 90%, measles transmission was substantially reduced and confirmed cases of measles fell steadily to very low levels. Until 2006, the last confirmed death due to acute measles in the UK had been in 1992. Measles was becoming a thing of the past. It’s no wonder that many parents became complacent about vaccination and decided that the perceived mild risks of a childhood disease like measles was a better bet than a frightening vaccine with many a tabloid headline to its name.

Sadly, measles is now beginning to rear its ugly head again. In 2012 there were 2,030 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales. In 1998, there were 56.

The current outbreak in Swansea has affected over 600 children.*

The success of the MMR vaccine at almost eradicating the measles virus was cruelly its undoing. People forgot about the risks of not vaccinating. They forgot that vulnerable children, including babies too young to be vaccinated could die from measles. Herd immunity protects these vulnerable children by ensuring that the virus is no longer circulating in the community. Vaccination is about more than protecting the individual.

In a world of instant global communication and instant gratification, it’s easy to think that measles is a virus we left behind with formica and angel delight. But we’d be wrong. It was just waiting for the opportunity for a revival.

*An update on the BBC website today (16th April) reported that the number of cases had now risen to 765.


Friday Frolic: Made in Scotland from girders

{frolic: (verb) playful, excited, energetic}

This week, we’ve mostly been rediscovering the delights of one of Scotland’s most famous beverages: Irn Bru. It quenches your thirst, cures your hangover and refreshes the parts other soft drinks can’t even hope to reach (let’s ignore its chemistry set ingredients – it’s made from girders and that’s all you need to know, ok?).

So, to continue with the Scottish theme this week, I just had to share this ad with you. Another doozy of an ad from The Leith Agency, it plays on some well known Scottish cliches with tongues firmly lodged in cheeks.

If you can bounce in six inch heels all night and still walk home in your bare feet.
If you can keep two passions burning bright and see if there’s still some romance and defeat,
If you can hit a foreign beach without a tan or brave the hurling sleet with just a shirt,
If you know you’re easily the better man when side by side with suits and just a skirt,
When you can party in the summer rain with kama kaze midges in the mud,
or grit your teeth and put up with the pain of seeing in the New Year in the Scud,
If you can wait and wait for 1P change then proudly give the lot to charity,
and know for certain it’s not strange to call your lunch dinner and dinner tea,
If you can handle folk who call you Jock
You’ll have really earned your IRN BRU.
You’ll thank your mum for keeping you in stock.
And what is more, you’ll feel phenomenal too!

It’s Friday, go on, have a frolic with Irn Bru. Cheers!