‘Belief’ key word in misinformation

News columnist Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge

‘Belief’ key word in misinformation

Some people have called me a doubting Thomas, curmudgeon or even a heretic. If I were living in a country with a repressive theocratic government I would have to worry I would be sentenced to death for questioning some of their outrageous beliefs and practices.

The problem is that their governments do not think their beliefs are outrageous at all.

Being a citizen of this wonderfully tolerant country called Canada, we all enjoy the privilege of many freedoms.

Free speech allows all of us to voice and discuss opinions about controversial issues.

I make liberal use of this privilege, hoping people will take a second look at their own firmly held beliefs and check these against the scientific evidence available. Being outspoken, I acquired some of the above mentioned less flattering labels. I wear them with pride.

It all started when I discovered, to my great dismay, the truth about Santa Claus. Like the great majority of my contemporaries, I had an unshakable belief in the existence of the jolly benefactor who knew everything about my conduct and would reward or punish me accordingly. My parents certainly benefited from my faith in Santa; especially in the months leading up to Christmas, I was on my best behaviour.

But after learning more about such traditions, I would no longer would take anybody’s word that certain activities or events would bring good or bad luck; tried them all and nothing ever materialized. Yet many people firmly believe that travelling on Friday the 13th is inviting trouble. I had the best travel ever with four seats to my own in a half-full flight from Hong Kong back to Vancouver, because of this silly superstition.

I was very young at the time, when many children died of whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, tetanus and many other highly contagious diseases. The grave markers dating back to the 1930s and ’40s show a disconcerting numbers of babies and very young children among the dead.

At that time, the only effective protection against any of these diseases was for smallpox. That was accomplished by vaccinating all children and adults with a harmless cowpox-virus to stimulate their own immune system to build up a guaranteed defense against this terrible disease.

Scientists took this concept and gradually developed a series of safe and effective vaccines against most of the childhood killer diseases.

The public health agencies in the developed countries waged campaigns to protect all children.

The result: many new physicians have never seen a case of diphtheria, measles or polio. That is to say, until recently, when a mini epidemic of whooping cough raged through our part of the world, killing several babies and causing many to be hospitalized for weeks with potentially life-threatening conditions.

If you wonder why this happened, it is because an increasing number of otherwise reasonably intelligent people believed there was more harm than good in protecting their offspring based on blatant misinformation from self-professed experts. The keyword is ‘belief.’

There is no scientific evidence to support those beliefs. Yet I could talk until I was blue in the face, but they stuck to their unfounded opinion, blindly put their children in harm’s way.

Most of the vaccines are nearly 100 per cent effective in providing protection against potentially lethal diseases. The one exception is the flu vaccine. The flu virus changes identity fairly frequently and therefore requires the development of a new specific vaccine.

It takes some educated guesswork, which of several circulating flu viruses will attempt to kill between 4,000 and 8,000 fellow Canadians every year. Sometimes the scientists guess right and sometimes partially right, or not at all, but in sum total, the vaccine will protect somewhere near 70 per cent of those who had the good sense to avail themselves of a little poke in the arm, with little or no side effects and in the process helping to prevent many unnecessary deaths.

I find it surprising that many of my colleagues and other health care personnel refuse to be vaccinated against the flu. They come up with as many silly excuses as a hard-core smoker will tell you why he or she cannot quit. I say poppycock. Let them get the flu, preferably a real bad one, but then have the decency to stay away from looking after patients and infecting them.

Would you want to have a doctor or nurse with a case of the flu attend to you when you are sick and vulnerable in a hospital bed? I for one would tell them to get lost and they should be suspended for unprofessional behaviour. After all the ground rule for physicians is: do no harm when treating a patient. Refusing to take reasonable precautions to protect patients goes directly against that sensible guideline.

Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.