Vaccines made quite a few headlines during the past year, and the mix of good, bad and downright nasty is astonishing.
On some fronts, science and reason triumphed over anti-vaccine groups and a few governments have started cracking down on the worst of the anti-vaccine quackery. The anti-science lobby has not yet been extinguished, of course, and they must continue to take responsibility for outbreaks of preventable diseases that took the lives and good health from unvaccinated people all over the world.
Let's begin with good news.
Some anti-vaccination groups have quieted down as they run out of reasons to hate vaccines. Others have been exposed as the public menace they are. Australians led the way in squashing "antivax" propaganda on several fronts. Most impressively they cracked down on the infamous Australian Vaccination Network.
In December, the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading gave the AVN a "letter of action" demanding it change its name or deregister, finally responding to years of complaints from Australian health organizations.
The letter states that the name is "misleading and a detriment to the community," and the information they were providing was "a public safety issue of life and death."
The name is at issue because it sounds like a legitimate government agency. The AVN website has misled thousands of people about the safety of vaccines and propagated misinformation for years. AVN members campaigned against vaccinations for measles, whooping cough and other diseases, prompting the health minister to call them "deceitful crackpots."
Some of these diseases have recently reached the highest epidemic levels in decades in many countries, causing deaths and long-term health consequences, as well as millions in extra health-care costs. Part of the blame for this goes to the AVN.
Australian skeptic groups deserve much of the credit for exposing the AVN and raising public awareness about its dangerous misinformation campaign.
More good news from Australia was the demise of a terrible children's book, Melanie's Marvelous Measles, written by a Queensland naturopath.
It was pulled from BookWorld (Borders) after pressure from Australian skeptics, health professionals and concerned parents. This poorly written booklet urges children to welcome the childhood disease that might kill them or leave them deaf or disabled.
The author's son died tragically from a genetic disease, but she rejected the medical diagnosis and blamed his measles vaccination instead. She used the AVN's propaganda to fill a small booklet with frightening lies about vaccines and sunny images of happy children with measles.
I had measles as a child, and I can still recall what a painful and terrifying experience it was. My parents were not certain I was going to survive and told me later that they didn't sleep for days.
There was some bad news from Europe.
An Italian court set science aside and awarded damages to a woman who claimed vaccines gave her son autism.
Despite criticism from medical and scientific communities, the court relied on the debunked and retracted paper by infamous medical fraud Andrew Wakefield.
The judges ignored mountains of scientific data showing there is absolutely no link between autism and vaccines and instead relied on anecdotes and quackery.
Anti-vaxxers claim this ruling "proves" the autism-vaccine link, but courts don't "do science." One must remember this is the same country that sent six scientists to jail for not predicting an earthquake and welcomed Silvio Berlusconi back as a 2013 candidate for premier.
Bad news from British Columbia arrived when B.C. Health Services backed down from its requirement that all health workers get flu shots this year.
It was disappointing that so many in the nursing profession are able to justify mounting a campaign against vaccines. Certainly, there are rare cases of people who cannot get the flu shot for health reasons, but for the rest of you - shame!
I have heard nurses claim "they wash their hands and have excellent hygiene in the hospital, so they don't need to get the vaccine." Regular hand washing is good, but certainly does completely stop viral transmission.
The flu is contagious before symptoms begin to manifest, so it's impossible to know in time when you need to stay home.
Some argue the vaccine makes them feel uncomfortable for a day. That's a pretty flimsy excuse. Worse still, some believe the tropes and lies of the anti-vaccine movement.
It's appalling that some nurses are ignorant about the science behind basic health care. I teach first-year nurses, and you can bet they get a big dose of science from me, so I hope none of my students refused the vaccine.
The flu shot is cheap, safe and easy to get. Last year, more than 100 million North Americans got flu vaccines and exactly zero people died from them. Even if the "jab" is not 100 per cent effective every year, it still reduces your chance of transmitting the virus by a significant amount. Hospitals are where the most vulnerable people are and we should protect them as much as possible.
The nastiest of all was a recent letter to the editor in another publication. A chiropractor claimed that the Newtown mass shooting was the result of vaccinations!
Not only is this assertion hysterical and ridiculous, it's deeply disrespectful.
The letter offered some scientific-sounding garbage about regions of the brain affected by vaccines in a way that causes violent tendencies, citing a crackpot historian who promotes homeopathy. Hundreds of millions of people get vaccines every year and never get the urge to shoot children.
It's a pity you can't vaccinate against stupidity.
Blythe Nilson is an associate professor of biology at UBC Okanagan and advisory fellow of the Centre For Inquiry Okanagan.