By Sophie Félix — Agence Science-Presse (www.sciencepresse.qc.ca)
A pharmaceutical medication has to prove its effectiveness in order to be approved by Health Canada. But most homeopathic products that get a permit only have to prove they are not harmful. And one of them is being promoted as an alternative to vaccines.
Nosodes are a homeopathic mixture that some people suggest be used for childhood diseases such as the measles or polio.
“It’s ridiculous!” says Brian Ward, MD, McGill University expert on vaccination and immunology, at the 2015 Lorne Trottier Symposium on Science and Evidence, put on by the McGill Office for Science and Society on September 28th.
This contradictory discourse feeds anti-vaccine movements, argues Professor Ward. This anti-vaccine point of view wasn’t necessarily represented in his audience that day. He was singing to the choir as he set out his argument about the public’s gradual loss of confidence in vaccines.
Since he began teaching immunology, the McGill professor asks his new students each year to rate the efficiency of vaccines from 0 (“vaccines are an absolute evil”) to 10 (“vaccines are beneficial”). Each year, the mark given by the students declines. During a TEDx conference, one-third of the audience gave vaccines a mark under 5. “It’s very frustrating,” Prof. Ward concludes.
“Above all, we have to communicate better, not with the activists, but with the people who hesitate and who are looking to do what’s best.” Despite all this, he sees some good news in that the number of unvaccinated children in Canadian schools runs around 1% to 2%, and the total number of abstentions, of children refusing vaccines, has been on the decline since 1985.
But among the unvaccinated, the share of parents who invoke a religious or philosophical objection – rather than a medical one – to refuse their children be vaccinated is on the rise. The record is in Oregon, where 6.4% of parents refused having their kids vaccinated for such reasons in 2015.
Then there’s the case of the University of Toronto, which offered a course on
“alternative health methods.” The course specifically condemned vaccines. Thanks to student complaints and a letter signed by 45 professors from several universities, the course was pulled from U of T’s calendar.
Dr. Paul Offit, the second speaker at the Lorne Trottier Symposium, was less optimistic than his colleague: “In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have to impose vaccination, because the public will be convinced by the data. But we don’t live in that world,” he said.
A pediatrician, Dr. Offit is on the front lines. Eliminated in the United States since 2000, measles made a stunning return in a 2014-15 outbreak: originating in Disneyland in Southern California, the disease made its way to Québec thanks to a spiritual anti-vaccine group.
But the measles outbreak that made the greatest impact on Dr. Offit was that of 1990-91. It killed 123 people, including 9 children in Philadelphia, among anti-medicine, faith-healing religious groups. Above all, the epidemic revealed the absurdity of religious exemptions: parents took control of their children’s care and even refused letting a doctor look at their sick children, even after the death of a brother or sister.
In most court proceedings of that era, judges ruled in favor of a temporary obligation to vaccinate, refusing religious exemptions because “the parents may want to be martyrs themselves, but that doesn’t give them the right to make martyrs of their children.”
That would be a great general solution for the whole United States. Sadly, says Dr. Offit, 48 states permit religious exemptions for vaccines, whereas two states recognize medical exemptions only. The 2014-15 outbreak relaunched the debate.
It’s a debate guaranteed to raise interest both in government and among religious groups. Dr. Offit points out that none of the great religions mentions vaccines in their holy texts, nor do any of them predict the existence of vaccines…
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