Last week, in A Coruña, several speeches by activists of the anti-vaccines movement during a fair of organic products and responsible consumption were announced. The public debate made the City Council react, which got the organization to cancel the conferences. Should these activities be considered as a crime against public health?
Vaccines protect today 86% of the world's population and, according to WHO data, prevent the deaths of two million people a year, especially children. / Pixabay
Shortly before publishing Charlie and the chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl lost his daughter Olivia, seven years old, a victim of measles. The death of the little girl marked the life of the writer's family, but it was an inevitable tragedy, because in 1962 there was still no effective vaccine against this disease. 24 years later, when that vaccine already existed, Dahl published a text in which he begged his fellow citizens to vaccinate their children.
(...) Here, in Britain, because so many parents reject, out of obstinacy, ignorance or fear, that their children are immunized, we still have one hundred thousand cases of measles each year. Of them more than 10,000 will have consequences of one kind or another. About twenty children will die.
Vaccines protect today 86% of the world's population and, according to WHO data, prevent the deaths of two million people a year, especially children. Thanks to vaccines we have managed to eradicate a disease as terrible as smallpox, and many others have disappeared from our lives.
But the appeal of Roald Dahl is still valid because the rejection of vaccines has not stopped growing, especially in the richest countries. In Europe alone, measles cases multiplied by four in 2017, causing 35 deaths. Diphtheria and pertussis cause again victims and if this trend is not reversed, we will see in our schools the ravages of polio.
It is difficult to imagine the pain of a person who loses a child for denying the protection provided by vaccines. But beyond the feelings of compassion and anger, it is convenient to reflect on the reasons for their obstinacy, ignorance and fear. In particular, we must analyze the role played by the activists of the anti-vaccines movement, which is increasingly organized.
The British writer Roald Dahl lost is daughter Olivia in 1962 h when she was only seven years old, victim of measles, for which there was no vaccine.
What mechanisms does society have to defend itself against the danger the anti-vaccines movement poses? Can we demand any responsibility for the consequences of their actions? What is the relationship between the growing rejection of vaccines and the proliferation of therapies that have never been shown to be effective and that are sometimes dispensed under the protection of the official associations of doctors and pharmacists themselves?
In A Coruña we have lived these days a couple of situations that exemplify the terms in which this debate is taking place. On the one hand, a hotel in the city decided to attend the protests of many citizens and canceled a conference by Josep Pàmies, an agricultural entrepreneur who, among other things, encourages the substitution of chemotherapy treatments with a combination of medicinal plants and bleach.
A few days later the City Council announced during a press conference the sponsorship of BioCultura, a fair that includes 75 editions between Seville, Valencia, Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid, and which in November last year occupied two pavilions of the IFEMA premises with more than 800 exhibitors and 74,500 visitors.
Shortly after the presentation, the City Council began to receive complaints because, along with composting workshops, energy cooperatives or sustainable school canteens, the fair scheduled several speeches given by renowned activists of the anti-vaccines movement. Among them, one titled "Presentation of the new ecological infectious theory". The following day the organization of the fair accepted the municipal demand to withdraw these talks, although others about the dangers of WIFI networks, the benefits of sacred geometry (sic) or quantum medicine (sic) remained in the program.
These cases show that both private companies and public administrations are sensitive to criticism and know how to react to protests in social networks and the media. This demonstrates that the public debate continues to be an effective tool to reduce the social space to those who instigate rejection of vaccines and at the same time helps to inform the public of the benefits of vaccination.
Ir más allá y pretender que la apología antivacunas se convierta en un delito contra la salud pública parece más efectivo, pero esta opción no está exenta de riesgos. En primer lugar porque consolidaría el discurso victimista y conspiranoico que tan convincente le resulta a una parte de la población. Pero, sobre todo, porque supondría añadir un nuevo límite al derecho a la libertad de expresión.
No en vano, estos días hemos asistido con preocupación a la condena de cárcel para un músico por el contenido de sus canciones, mientras que responsables del IFEMA –que nada parecen objetar a las conferencias antivacunas– forzaban la retirada de una obra de arte de carácter político que se iba a exponer en ARCO.
Going further and pretending that anti-vaccination apology becomes a crime against public health seems more effective, but this option is not free of risks. In the first place, because it would consolidate the victim mentality and conspiracy discourse that is so convincing to a part of the population. But above all, because it would mean adding a new limit to the right to freedom of expression.
Not in vain, these days we have attended with concern to the prison sentence for a musician for the content of his songs, while the heads of IFEMA (the Madrid Fair Institute) - who does not seem to object to anti-vaccine conferences - forced the withdrawal of a work of art with politician character which was going to be exhibited at ARCO.
At eco fairs, products made with criteria of environmental responsibility and pseudo-therapies converge. / Biocultura
At the same time, the programming of these events within the framework of events whose objective is "to promote organic farming and healthy food as a basis for a more just and respectful society" invites us to analyze the rejection of vaccines within the framework of a broader context. The interest of broad sectors of society for the consumption of more "natural" and less polluting products has given rise to a thriving economic sector that enjoys official recognition and is regulated by specific norms.
It is precisely in this environment ("eco" fairs, "organic" product stores, etc.) where foods produced with criteria of environmental responsibility converge without apparent contradiction with pseudo-therapies and miraculous products that have never proven effective. As expected, we will also find here the highest rates of rejection of transgenic crops, which, despite exceeding all food safety requirements, continue to experience strong opposition in Europe.
It would be a serious mistake to attribute the whole conglomerate complex of personal options to a simple question of ignorance or anti-scientific feelings, pretending that science can solve all problems and that its authority should be sufficient to solve all the dilemmas and contradictions that arise of the application of any technology.
Science is far from possessing the monopoly of reason, and even where the evidence provided by the scientific method is unquestionable (vaccines protect against diseases, tobacco causes cancer and this is not cured with bleach), we need social consensus to translate these findings into standards that we can all meet.
Marcos Pérez Maldonado is director of the Museos Científicos Coruñeses. He is an expert in scientific museography and didactics of science in non-formal environments; science in children's education; production of dissemination, interactive projects, exhibitions and planetarium programs.