Vancouver scientist Chris Shaw is no stranger to controversy. He played a role in opposing the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, even penning an impressive polemic against the event called Five Ring Circus. He served as a medical coordinator at Occupy Vancouver and he even took on the thankless task of running for city council as a candidate for the upstart De-Growth Vancouver. (Full disclosure: I have known Shaw through his political activism now for several years.) You would think with so much controversy in his political life, he would play it safe in his professional work as a research scientist.
But no. Shaw, who is on faculty at UBC with the Departments of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Experimental Medicine and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, and his colleague Lucija Tomljenovic have recently published a carefully parsed and thoroughly peer reviewed paper on vaccine safety, without a doubt one of the most controversial topics in medicine today. Despite the cautious and professional tone of the paper, and despite the authors' clear statement that their findings are not in themselves decisive, only pointing to the need for more extensive research into vaccine safety, the paper, published in November 2011 in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry which describes correlations and possible causal links between increased exposure to aluminum salts used as adjuvants in vaccines and increased levels of neurological trouble in exposed populations, seems to inflame angry and punitive responses in some quarters.
For example, when I discussed the Tomljenovic/Shaw paper with Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a strong proponent of vaccines and the developer of a successful new vaccine that has made him a multi-millionaire, he told me that the paper "should never have been published," despite the fact it was rigorously peer reviewed before publication. (Like many who want to insist that all questions of vaccine safety have been settled, Offit invokes the notorious Andrew Wakefield affair involving a now discredited and withdrawn paper published in The Lancet in 1998, which suggested a link between MMR vaccines and autism. Offit claims that paper is responsible for avoidable deaths as worried parents failed to vaccinate their children. Wakefield has recently filed a suit for defamation against Brian Deer, the investigative journalist whose work was central to the storm of criticism that surrounded the Lancet paper.)
Green College at UBC is preparing to present a half day symposium this spring and a series of lectures this fall about vaccine safety to be co-moderated by Shaw and Dr. Rob Tarzwell, of the UBC department of psychiatry. In response to news these events were in the offing, one UBC professor sent a letter to the organizers expressing dismay and disapproval that the discussion was going to be held at all. (Final scheduling for the Green College events has not yet been determined, but I am advised the information on scheduling and tickets will soon appear on the Green College website at greencollege.ubc.ca.)
These calls to silence critical discussion of a still open scientific question are troubling. Science progresses by investigation, debate and full discussion, not by fiat and censorship. It is, despite the dismay of the prof who registered his opposition, a good thing that Green College will host a full and vigorous discussion of some of the still unresolved issues surrounding vaccine safety.
Few of us, no matter how skeptical we may be about the absolute safety of the vaccines and additives involved in the over 30 vaccines now prescribed for Canadian children before school entry, and no matter how prone we may be to view the bottom line interests of the highly profitable pharmaceutical industry (which reportedly views new vaccines as a highly lucrative "next big thing") with suspicion, are calling for a retreat from all immunization programs. Many of us, however, welcome the fact that independent scientists like UBC's Shaw and Tomljenovic are willing to fly in the face of received wisdom and pursue their findings wherever they lead. We would like to see rigorously peer reviewed research continue, and public discussion and debate promoted. It is doubtless true, as Offit argued to me when I interviewed him last year, that rumors of vaccine dangers spread in the verification free zones of the internet can do harm. But the proper response to bad science is good science, not censorship. No area of research should be out of bounds for free minds, and received wisdom, whether positive or negative, about vaccine safety should never substitute for real research.