Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I am not against government or agency watchdog-type groups. I think the majority of the time we are better off for them. Accountability is a strong motivator to do the "right thing." However, I think some of these groups could do more harm than good.

For example, the anti-vaccination groups.
I think these people mean well, but people that understand how vaccines work and can critically think about scientific data, know that what anti-vaccine pushers are saying doesn't really make any sense. I don't want to go into too much detail because I think that Dr. Steve Novella does an excellent job of explaining the errors and misconceptions of the anti-vaccine movement on his NeuroLogica blog. These groups have been in the news touting their belief that vaccines are to blame for the increases in the number of children that are diagnosed with autism. Originally they proposed that thimerosal (an organic mercury compound) was to blame. Recent scientific studies show no connection. Furthermore, despite removal of thimerosal from vaccines, autism cases have continued to increase. Still the anti-vaccination movement persists.
The major problem here is that these groups might (and one might argue, aim to) encourage parents not to vaccinate their children. Even a small decrease in the percentage of immunized people in a population can seriously compromise herd immunity. If you are immune compromised (cancer, transplant recipient, elderly) herd immunity is vital.

Example 2 (a group near and dear to my heart): The biosafety or biosecurity watchdog organizations.
These groups might obtain information (like meeting minutes) under the freedom of information act and then compare these minutes to incidents reported to the CDC. If they find an incident mentioned in a meeting, but not reported to the CDC, the group reports the lab and institution to the CDC and the media. There are serious consequences to not reporting incidents.
My lab includes a BSL3 laboratory and we work on a select agent, so any type of exposure to the organism, whether it is actually putting someone in danger or not, is written up and reported. Additionally, whenever we use the bacteria, we record this activity (in detail) in a log. Fine. No problem. (I'm not even going to get into all the security precautions we take. This is another blog entry on its own.)
What irritates me, is when a watchdog group sees that an incident (that was reported to the proper agencies) happened within a BSL3 or BSL4 and decides to send out press releases to the media painting the incident as a near catastrophe that puts the publics health at risk. I read one news article where a watchdog group member discussed the problem of "rogue" labs within the US that are working on select agents. WTF is a rogue lab? Is it in a motor home with foil over the windows like a meth lab? Where is this "rogue" lab information coming from? If they know of them, why aren't they reporting them to the CDC?
In other articles, I have seen these people describe the number of reported incidents that occurred within BSL3 and BSL4 laboratories. The numbers might seem high, but they are not discussed with any context. This number doesn't reflect safety unless you compare it to how many times a lab member does an experiment in a BSL3 or BSL4 lab without an incident occurring. Of course, we don't have to report that.
Let's think about this for a minute. People are going to make mistakes and have accidents. It's fact. This is one of the reasons why certain research is done in a BSL3 or BSL4 environment, and not in the hallway of an elementary school. The accidents that happen within a BSL3 or BSL4 laboratory are already contained by virtue of where they occur. The only people exposed are those within the lab itself. Even so, the lab members (if following proper protocol) should also be safe in many of these scenarios because they are wearing protective clothing, face protection or are vaccinated. So, if you hear about an incident happening within a BSL3 or BSL4 be glad, that is where it is supposed to occur.
Personally, I think it is unethical to scare the public when there is no real danger.

The point? If you are going to guard the public from harm and are concerned about peoples health and well-being; great. Just educate yourself first so your advice or opinion is more likely to help.

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