by Athena Godet-Calogeras
Many of us can remember the time when research of any topic often involved hours perusing tomes of books and magazine articles in a local library or university. No longer. Now, comfortably ensconced in front of a computer, iPad, or smart phone, we simply key in pertinent words and, voilà, links related to our subject appear! The world of information is just a click away — for better or for worse.
We’ve gone to cyberspace for the best recipe for a particular dish, for advice on how to treat an injury, for suggestions on how best to lose weight, or gain it, for uses and limitations of certain medications, and on and on. The cyber library of information is immediate and can be useful if we know how to decipher and choose valid sources; critical thinking is a necessity.
A public health case in point can illustrate the critical need for reliable information: the outbreak of measles and other diseases prevented by vaccination. Although measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, almost 1,300 cases of measles were reported in 31 states in the U.S. in 2019— the greatest number since 1992.
This is a disease that a sneeze can send a virus lingering in the air for a couple of hours. Why did the U.S experience the worst outbreak of measles in more than 25 years and the recurrence of other diseases preventable by vaccination? Possibly because more people are refusing vaccination. We can offer the same rationale for the two year (thus far) dominance of COVID-19.
When in 1796 Edward Jenner demonstrated that inoculation with material from a smallpox lesion could protect against further exposure to the disease, the vaccine era was born. A hundred years later, there was a vaccine against rabies. Last century many new vaccines were developed, and thousands of potential deaths from preventable diseases were averted. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) considers vaccinations as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. In this author’s experience, Salk’s polio vaccine was welcomed as a godsend, ending the tragedy of paralysis or death from the feared disease. Prior to the 1950s, some 15,000 people were paralyzed by polio each year. With the production of the vaccine, hundreds would line up for the injection, and later for the medicated sugar cube (the oral vaccine developed by Sabin. “Sunday Oral Sunday” publicized the day it was distributed). Since the 1950s, vaccination against certain diseases has been mandatory in schools and advised for others. Parents and their physicians follow a schedule of immunization.
Yet, there have always been individuals who discount or disregard scientific and other reputable evidence. If someone gets vaccinated and afterwards contracts a disease, the vaccination is the culprit. In 1998 a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, said that he had found a relationship between the vaccine given for measles, mumps, and rubella (the m,MMR vaccine) and autism. His study involving 12 children concluded that those vaccines taken together could alter immune systems leading to brain damage — and autism. Numerous epidemiological studies followed, debunking the doctor’s work. Later, British authorities stripped Dr. Wakefield of his license.
Whom and what can you believe in cyberspace? Here are some guidelines:
Not heeding information from reliable sources can endanger one’s health as well as that of others.