The false science of believing that vaccinations for infants are somehow tied to development of autism spectrum disorders has been widely debunked. Yet, the consequences of that event is still being realized. The fact that many people had believed him, and many still do, have significant consequences.
CNN reported on the increase of measles, which was eliminated in the U.S. by 2000, according to the Center for Disease Control of the United States. This is an example of herd immunity (sometimes also called group immunity or community immunity). In essence, this is where individuals who are not immunized are effectively protected against an infectious disease because the vast majority of people around them are immunized. When we switch the environment, such as when these non-immunized individuals travel to a different country where the immunization rate is not as high, they are now at risk of contracting these infectious diseases because they have lost the herd immunity protection.
It is important to note that herd immunity can only work to protect us if those who can be immunized, do. There are individuals who cannot be immunized due to medical reasons, and they rely on the people around them being immunized to protect them from some of these infectious diseases. Herd immunity also works to protect people with weakened immune systems, such as those on chemotherapy, those who are HIV positive, and the elderly people.
The unquestioning acceptance of the false claim aided and abetted by the uncritical reporting serves to remind us that scientific literacy of the general public and the integrity of scientific reporting are both critical components in public health. The anti-science groups like the creationists and the climate-change deniers are cogs in the larger machine that undermines the scientific enterprise. Sometimes, their work actually yield results, but those results are never pretty.
Science is not always right – there are flaws and shortcomings in any large enterprise run by humans. Fortunately, science is also self-correcting. It serves no public good to attack science, or to belittle the importance of science, using appeals to emotions and by preying on people’s fears and guilt. The proper place to exert pressure to promote good science is for the citizens to be engaged and to monitor the outputs, not from famous actors or actresses championing a cause.
I think one of the most important things that scientists and science educators can do is to work to increase the scientific literacy of our society. It is a difficult task, but someone has to do it.