Of Fluoride and Vaccinations

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Deadly Choices a book by Paul Offit which gives a history of the science and debate about vaccine safety in the United States.

Coincidentally, within the last week back home in New Zealand the Hamilton City Council has decided to remove fluoride from drinking water. A daft and backward step which will have long term negative consequences for public health.

Writing on the blog site Pundit, Tim Watkin states:

Hamilton councillors are just the latest folk to fall prey to fear-raising arguments against ‘mass medication’ and in favour of individual choice, while ignoring science…

The science – the proper science, that is – seems pretty clear that we have low fluoridation levels in our water and bumping it up a little helps our oral care en masse. Health agencies from WHO down say it helps dental hygiene and is a human right. There is no proof of fluoride poisoning, if that’s what you’d call it, in the New Zealand population over recent generations and every reason to think a significant number of New Zealanders will have more teeth problems as a result of less fluoride in the water. Just about everything becomes a poison at the right dose, but at a lower dose it’s fine, even beneficial…

But it’s indicative of a wider trend in these modern times, which is worrying, and that’s the rise of the instant expert and the ‘I know better than the majority of scientists’ brigade.

This is one point that Offit’s book touches on. Emotional stories about how medication is actually poisonous and how it harms people that isn’t backed up from science is often believed in lieu of strong and easily understood scientific explanations. The problem is at times science is hard to understand, and combined with scaremongering about anything government controlled explaining becomes a scientific PR nightmare.

Each of those ‘mass medication’ debates are issues, to greater and lesser degrees, of the community good coming up against individual choice. And it’s about time we started paying more attention to the community good.

Many kids living in poverty, for example, don’t have the choice – for all kinds of complex reasons – to get enough fluoride and will suffer as a result of this decision by the council in Hamilton, and those in other cities. So what about the choice of them all?

Recently in Sydney there has been news articles about the levels of immunisation in select suburbs. Strangely, some of the most affluent suburbs have the lowest rates of immunisation. This is as a direct result of people not understanding science or putting their own individual views and rights before the collective community good.

The problem with this is people who chose not to vaccinate are not only putting their own family at risk they are also putting at risk the lives of others in the community whom are unable to vaccinate due to a variety of health reasons.

The science is sound and simple:

  • Water fluoridation improves oral health.
  • Vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism, or other extreme side effects.
  • By not vaccinating you are putting your own and others lives at risk.

Over the last 200 years we have seen vaccine science develop and all but eradicate deadly diseases of the past: measles, mumps, smallpox, polio, and many others. However, in the recent past as a result of people not believing, or accepting real science, communities have seen a breakdown of herd vaccination and these deadly diseases have started to kill again. I wonder how large a disease outbreak will have to be to get a change in this behaviour.

The World Until Yesterday

A few weeks ago I finished reading Jared Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday. At almost 500 pages the book is a long and at times heavy read, but overall, a fascinating thesis on the rapid changes taking place in traditional societies and the potential loss of indigenous knowledge and culture as modern civilisation influences far reaches of the globe.

One of the overarching points in the book is how many things that we consider normal, and take for granted, are in fact quite unusual in the history of world civilisations. Diamond uses the acronym WEIRD to describe modern society: western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. This description is then used throughout the book to compare modern society to other traditional societies in matters of friendships, relationships, conflict resolution, decision making, child raising, societal care of aged peoples, languages, religion and food.

My copy of the book is now dog eared in many places from many great insights Diamond makes, of which three in particular stand out:

Speaking of the general behaviour of individuals in modern societies Diamond states:

We not only permit, we actually encourage, individuals to advance themselves, to win, and to again advantages at the expense of others. In many of our business transactions we aim to maximise our own profits, and never mind the feelings of the person on the other side of the table on whom we have succeeded in inflicting a loss. Even children’s games… are contests of winning and losing. That isn’t so in traditional… [societies], where children’s play involves cooperation rather than winning or losing.

Speaking of the purpose of religion in societal development:

For individuals and for societies, religion often involves a huge investment of time and resources… religion thus incurs “opportunity costs”: those investments of time and resources in religion that could have been devoted instead to obviously profitable activities, such as planting more crops, building dams, and feeding larger armies of conquest. If religion didn’t bring some big real benefits to offset those opportunity costs, any atheistic society that by chance arose would be likely to outcompete religious societies and take over the world.

Finally in discussing children’s upbringings and our overall desire to experiment and learn:

In Africa, if you need something, you make it for yourself, and as a result you know how it is put together and how it works. In the U.S., if you need something, you go buy it, and you don’t know how it is put together…
Many people in the U.S. have acquired a great many things, but they remain paupers so far as their knowledge and understanding of the rest of the world is concerned. They seem to be comfortably enclosed within their walls of carefully constructed, selective ignorance.

Despite its length, The World Until Yesterday is a brilliant book that makes you question and consider in our WEIRD modern society if there are things that we have forgotten from our traditional roots and maybe should relearn. Pick it up and give it a read.