Regardless of the issue at hand, there’s a price to pay when we dodge nuances. In recent decades parents have been in the spotlight for refusing to vaccinate their children. In chastising them, we reiterate that they have become suspicious of the “medical establishment” and have been influenced by fiction on the internet. There’s no doubt about the role of such causes, but in trying to change their minds, we also counter with a distorted picture of medical history, as if vaccination programs have placed us on a march towards the elimination of disease, as if modern medicine has enjoyed a record free of blemishes.
Thanks to Gerhard Adam, I’ve probed into Statistics Canada, which reveals some surprising truths about life expectancy and have scoured Jacalyn Duffin’s remarkable History of Medicine-A Scandalously Short Introduction. The author, a hematologist and historian from Queen’s, mentions that in the 1970s Gerald Ford was prompted to start a huge campaign to vaccinate 45 to 50 million people. It was aimed at a flu virus that was perceived to be similar to the one which caused the 1918 pandemic and which claimed 20 to 40 million lives. More details are documented by the Center for Disease Control. Unfortunately, about two hundred vaccinated people contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages his nerve cells, leading to muscle weakness and at times paralysis. CDC acknowledged that although some of the cases could have been a coincidence, a small but definite cause and effect relationship was at work. The influenza never materialized either, and the vaccination program was scrapped.
The media at the time portrayed it as a fiasco, harshly accusing the government’s health bureaucracy of acting in self-interest. But there’s an important lesson to be learned, and it’s now included in Annex 11 of DHEW’s (Department of Health, Education, & Welfare) pandemic preparedness plan, which states,
“For policy decisions and in communication, making clear what is not known is as important as stating what is known. When assumptions are made, the basis for the assumptions and the uncertainties surrounding them should be communicated.”
When such advice is ignored and people are kept in the dark and things go wrong, the ensuing loss of confidence in authority has repercussions far into the future.
Duffin explains the origin of the medical caduceus. In Greek mythology, after Medusa was slain, Athena was presented with the snake-tressed head. She then gave blood to the healer, Asclepios, who used it for cures and to raise the dead. But I learned from Robert Graves’ Greek Myths that Asclepios was given two vials of blood, one from each side of the monster. One vial gave life; the other took it away. It is a somber reminder of medicine’s occasional iatrogenic effects.