From anti-vaxers to Alfie’s Army: have we lost faith in medical science?

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, ConservatoryBiomedical dilemmas

According to the 2017 Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, nurses and doctors are the most-trusted people in the UK. And not far behind them are scientists and professors. All of which may be unsurprising. But in certain contexts, this trust seems to evaporate. Take the ever-present anti-vaccination (or ‘anti-vax’) movement, which refuses to accept the medical establishment’s assurances about vaccines. Or the popular reaction when medical professionals decide it is no longer right to try to keep very sick children alive, as in the cases of Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard. Instances of apparent malpractice, like the deaths of 450 patients at Gosport War Memorial Hospital, have also raised serious public concerns. In these cases, doctors are regarded with suspicion rather than trust.

Arguably this is nothing new. In the case of vaccines, this lack of trust is well over a century old. In 1885, for example, a reported 80,000 people took part in a march under the auspices of the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League to protest against – among other things – the UK Vaccination Act of 1840, which made smallpox vaccination compulsory by law.

These movements appear to challenge the very foundations modern medicine is built on – but do the critics have a point? After all, after decades of Big Pharma behaving badly, spates of medical malpractice (and the cover-ups that follow), and plenty of cases of dodgy doctors and scientists, do these professions warrant some level of scepticism? And even if doctors do know best, aren’t parents ultimately the people who should be making decisions about their own children?

What role does something like ‘fake news’ play in polarising these debates? Given the overwhelming scientific consensus about the merits of vaccines, is the ‘anti-vax’ movement simply anti-science, or even anti-intellectual? Or is it healthy to have more sceptical intellectual currents to hold the scientific establishment to account? And when it comes to controversial end-of-life decisions, are they simply about emotion versus reason, or are there important points of principle that need to be considered and debated between doctor, patient, and family?