by Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin. First published in the News Straits Times

IF you’re anything like me, you would be met by any number of health scares or lifestyle advice each time you log onto Facebook.

Some may be advertisements purporting to offer products or services that you might find useful, others are probably forwarded by well-meaning individuals. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

As a doctor, I am bound both ethically and legally by the advice I give to my patients. If you add a religious element to things, there is also the obligation to not spread falsehoods or mislead others into acts/behaviours that may be detrimental to themselves or their loved ones.

Such restrictions do not apply to social media — on the Internet, information is free but knowledge is not. The charlatans who previously only existed in street markets now have a digital audience to exploit.

There are still others who are eager to claim expertise in certain subjects based on dubious merit. At best, some are out to make a profit (product X is the revolutionary new supplement that is endorsed by Professor I-won-a-Nobel-prize and is guaranteed to make you lose weight if you use it alongside a healthy diet, and yes I happen to sell this product) but at worst, it can lead to deaths.

One recurring theme that particularly irks me is the supposed link between vaccinations and autism. The proponents of these links are often well-educated liberals who often feel that they automatically know everything there is to know about the subject by typing the word “vaccine” into a search engine.

However, the ability to use search engines and distill opinions on the basis of preconceived bias does not an expert make, especially if one is unable to objectively analyse scientific studies and ignore emotionally-driven anecdotes or conspiracy theories.

Vaccines were generally considered to be not only beneficial, but a necessity until The Lancet, one of the foremost journals in medicine, published a study linking the MMR vaccine with the onset of autism. The author, Andrew Wakefield, concluded that the vaccine caused undigested nutrients to “leak” into the bloodstream and cause brain damage.

In the democracy that is science, study data is reviewed by peers and flaws are highlighted — we learn from each other by using the scientific method. In Wakefield’s case, the response was swift — although the study was published in a respected journal, it was deemed unrepresentative as the methodology was flawed. Correlation does not equate causation, and in this case, there were only 12 children who were studied retrospectively. In fact, most of Wakefield’s co-authors eventually withdrew their support for the study’s interpretations.

Even more controversial were the results of an investigation that identified financial conflicts of interest (Wakefield had a patent for a rival measles vaccine that he claimed was safer than the MMR vaccine).

The British General Medical Council conducted an investigation which also discovered that numerous unnecessary invasive medical procedures (for example, taking fluid samples from the spine) were done on children with autism without proper ethical consent.

Unsurprisingly, Wakefield was struck off the medical register and barred from practising in the United Kingdom. The Lancet also
retracted his study after it was noted that parts of his study were falsified.

Unfortunately, the court of public opinion does not always bow to scientific facts. It is very difficult to shake the bogeyman once he has been identified — cue numerous studies and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on proving what we already knew — that there is no link between MMR (and other) vaccinations and autism.

In the din of pseudoscientific debates, it is often forgotten that vaccinations are one of the most incredible and successful aspects of modern medicine.

Previously, lethal diseases such as smallpox have disappeared, with millions of lives saved. In the absence of sufficient uptake, some diseases have made a comeback — the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that worldwide, almost 165,000 people will die from measles and another 200,000 from whooping cough this year, both easily prevented by vaccinations.

Naturally, nothing in medicine is without risk and some vaccines do have rare side effects. Furthermore, some individuals may not be suitable for vaccination as they may have allergies or underlying problems with their immune system. However, this makes it all the more important that the rest of us are sufficiently vaccinated, as herd immunity will allow us to protect the more vulnerable members of our community.

At the end of the day, it is a prerequisite that we judge each news item in a critical and open fashion before subscribing to a belief, especially one that may affect the health and lives of our loved ones.

Education on critical thinking should begin at an early age, and one can only hope that both
parents and teachers are hard at work in instilling this skill in our children.

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Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin is a founding associate of IDEAS

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