This week is vaccine awareness week, sponsored by the harmful anti-vaccine crowd, to better spread their misinformation. In response, the science based medicine community, as well as a number of other skeptics, are running a counter-campaign, attempting to correct misinformation and to spread some real vaccine awareness.

I am not a scientist, nor do I claim expertise in that direction, at all.  However, as a professional magician, I do understand two facts about our species in considerable depth: I know how people are deceived, and – more importantly for this present discussion – how they deceive themselves.  Others with proven expertise in medicine will provide every sort of fact and lots of figures on how many – literally millions – of human lives have been saved since medical science came up with vaccines back in the 1770s.  In fact, it would be difficult to offer a more striking example of a powerful, dependable, scientific discovery that has proven itself so positively, for more than a century now.  Unfortunately, there are uninformed, biased people currently preaching loudly that we should abandon this great discovery and allow life-threatening infections and diseases to again take over as decimating elements in our pursuit of health and longevity.

Fear of medical progress is, to some extent, understandable.  Parents of children who believe that vaccines threaten their kids can easily be influenced by ignorant celebrities – sports figures and cinema stars – who may well honestly believe and repeat the horror stories they’ve been told.  These stories are naturally frightening to those uninformed of the facts, but are often built entirely upon misunderstandings of reality. The “Big Pharma” golem that has been invented by the naïve came about from the fact that the creation and development of new means of conquering disease is very expensive, and the billions spent in that pursuit must be defrayed in the costs of the products.  Yes, this is unfortunate, but the results of such research are evident when the statistics are considered.  Today, the scourge once known as smallpox is controlled, polio is no longer crippling children worldwide, and simple preventive means are available to most of the world.  The lives saved are incalculable.

However, these facts are sometimes forgotten when a popular actress, a well-known author, or a religious figure stands up and declares – with no authority whatsoever – that vaccines are responsible for causing the dreaded condition known as autism, for example.  The fact that entry into a child’s system is made to administer a vaccine, can override a parent’s common sense, set off alarms, and bring about panic that the government is imposing rules on the populace that are not necessary and that may be harmful.

When the thalidomide scare erupted in the 1950’s, the public’s fear of medical science was brought to a peak.  That drug was withdrawn when it became known that birth defects could be a side-effect of its use, and though it is still used with a different application, that dreadful lesson is still before us.  We’ve learned a lot since then, as we tend to do when errors are made, but the idea that vaccines cause autism is a very thoroughly tested, researched, and disproved notion.

We have a Dark Age of sorts facing us, one in which a generation of children may be decimated through the ignorance of the public, fueled by irresponsible public figures who assume expertise they do not possess.  Every parent will defend a child; withholding legitimate, effective, medication is not the way to do it…  That is self-deception, resulting in well-meant but often fatal results. We must work harder to oppose this effort!

For a listing of other commentary this week from the skeptical and science based medicine community on this important subject, please see the Science Based Medicine Blog.