Many of us can remember the time when research of any topic often involved hours perusing scholarly tomes 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 need for reliable information: the outbreak of measles and other diseases prevented by vaccination. As of June of this year, 1,032 new cases of measles were reported in the United States, most of them in New York City and its suburbs. This is a disease that a sneeze can send the virus lingering in the air for a couple of hours. Why is the U.S currently experiencing 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.
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, Jonas 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 Albert Bruce 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 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 Wakefield of his license.
However, the link between autism and vaccine has continued and been accepted by some who cite religious or “researched” evidence for their conviction that vaccines are unnatural and/or unhealthy. Probably the most influential anti-vaxxing organization is the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which advertises itself as the “oldest and largest consumer led organization advocating for the institution of vaccine safety and informed consent protections.” However, according to the Media Bias/Fact Check, “this is a quackery level pseudoscience website that promotes dangerous information that is not scientifically backed.”
Who and what can you believe in cyberspace? Here are some guidelines:
n Seek sites from established institutions.
n Check for the author’s expertise as well as his or her bias.
n Avoid commercial sites and anonymous authors.
n Check both date of publication as well as the publication’s links. In the health care arena, there are several credible and user-friendly sites you can rely on. They include the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control, the American Diabetes Association, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Drugs.com, and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Not heeding information from reliable sources can endanger one’s health as well as that of others. That goes for the case in point: vaccination. Inoculation against communicable, often deadly diseases has overwhelming scientific and evidential proof to be effective. In New York state, as of June 13, no one will be able to claim a religious exemption to the school vaccination requirement. Yet there are those in every community who can exempt themselves. In Cattaraugus County, the majority of the county’s 2,500 Amish are not vaccinated. Ten of the county’s school districts reported a total of 353 children home-schooled, without a mandate for vaccination.
Will there be an outbreak of measles, pertussis, mumps or other preventable diseases in our county one day? We can hope not. Better yet, we can take measures to ensure it doesn’t happen. We can all turn our backs on non-credible, often fear-mongering sources of information — internet and otherwise — shake off our we-know-best attitudes and follow the evidence that supports vaccination.
(Athena Godet-Calogeras is chairwoman of the Health Care Access Coalition and a volunteer with the Cattaraugus County Health Department.)