Distrust But Verify

Thanks to the Queen of Links for sending me this from Theodore Dalrymple about vaccines. Unfortunately, the particular vaccine he's defending (HPV against a certain form of cervical cancer) is indefensible for other reasons in my view --the least of which being its short shelf-life, such that if you vaccinate young girls at 11 as they're recommending here in the US (I got the pitch for Girl Weed at her latest check-up), the protective effect starts wearing off at just the moment your daughter will most need it if she's a sexually active teen, so what's the point of the initial risk --all vaccines containing some risk?

Putting that aside, though, I appreciate this point. In medical school he saw a young man die of small pox induced by a vaccination he shouldn't have received because of a pre-existing condition. It horrified him --but should it have turned him against the small-pox vaccine? In the absence of perspective, information can be dangerous; and nothing is harder to assess than the proper significance of a single dramatic event. Such an event can be greeted by complacency when, in fact, it is the harbinger of disaster; or it causes panic when there is little to worry about. Panic itself can be more dangerous than what gives rise to it. We have, therefore, to control our first reactions by rational thought.
Apparently Britain's just suffered its first death thought to be HPV-vaccine related. He writes:

When the immunisation programme against cervical cancer started, it was estimated, or guessed, that the vaccine might cause one death in a million cases: 1.4 million girls have been immunised, and this might be the first death caused by it.

The estimate, or guess, has therefore proved accurate; and if the trials of the vaccine are to be credited, the estimated number of lives eventually saved will far exceed one, and the extra years of life saved will be far in excess of those lost. This is no consolation to the grieving parents, of course; but it is how the rest of us ought to think.

I think in the US we've had more deaths and more reason, therefore, to blame the vaccine (the CDC reports "serious" reactions, including 27 deaths and induced Guillane-Barre syndrome in up to 7% of cases), but the larger point is well-observed. People seem to have forgotten we're always playing the odds.

Nothing is sooner forgotten than that we have much to be grateful for. Therefore a current death from immunisation counts more than a thousand lives saved by it, in part because a death is tangible but saved life abstract. Conspiracy theories flourish easily on immunisation. It is not difficult to find websites dedicated to the exposure of supposed cover-ups by governments of its alleged harmful effects.
He offers a really interesting history of opposition to the smallpox vaccine -- a campaign that pitted George Bernard Shaw against Louis Pasteur, and whose side are you going to be on? The faithless socialist or the devout, rosary-praying science-savior?

Of course, there are reasons not to trust the government: thalydomide, the Carter-era swine flu vaccine, SARS, general principles. But that's weak thinking.

We mistrust the authorities so much in general that their reassurances, even when justified, are disbelieved. Their credit has been so exhausted by past untruths on many matters that we no longer take the trouble to judge properly what is true and what is false: we assume that all is false alike.

Well, distrust all you like, but verify. And knowing someone to whom the worst happened does not count as verification, however traumatic the experience.