Measles, Biosolids and Our Own “Merchants of Doubt”

Measles is a highly contagious virus that spreads through the air by coughing and sneezing. It starts with a fever, runny nose and cough that is followed by a rash that spreads over the body. It was first recognized in the 9th century. For the first time in 1912, healthcare providers in the US were required to report all diagnosed cases of measles. During the first decade of required reporting, about 6,000 measles related deaths were reported each year. Before a vaccine became available in 1963, just about all kids got measles by the time they were 15. Right before the vaccine became available, an average of 400 - 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) each year as a result of measles. As a result of widespread vaccinations, measles was declared eliminated from the US in 2000. That declaration was a little bit premature.

What you are asking, does this have to do with biosolids?

A paper was published in 1998 by Wakefield et al (#1 in the library) that claimed a connection between the measles vaccine (currently given in combination with vaccines for mumps and rubella- MMR) and autism. The scientists examined 12 children and in 8 of them found a connection between the vaccine and irritable bowel syndrome and autism. That paper was found to be false, both in its conclusions as well as in how it handled the data. It has been retracted. Large amounts of additional research, largely done as a response to this pape,r have proven this loudly and clearly (for example #2 in the library).

Despite the retraction of the original paper and the abundance of contrary scientific evidence clearly showing that MMR is linked only to stopping measles mumps and rubella and not related to autism, a growing movement of concerned parents will not let their children get vaccinated. We now have clusters in the US where people are anti- vaccine. Many groups, including one fronted by Jenny McCarthy, former Playmate of the month, have made real the perception for many well-meaning parents that hazards associated with vaccinations are much greater than any benefits. There are enough of these parents that we are now reading about a measles outbreak that had its origins in Disney Land. The third paper in the library is all about the anti-vaccine lobby in the UK and US. THIS IS THE MUST READ PAPER IN THIS LIBRARY. Let me give you just a few quotations. Read these and then let me know if you are still wondering what this has to do with biosolids.

In the article, the author quotes Julie Leask from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance in Australia : “The subtext to messages is always the same:, there are the universal themes of cover up; vaccines as poisonous chemical cocktails; an unholy alliance for profit; the threat of excessive government control; and the back to nature idyll.” Substitute the words sewage sludge for vaccine and you’ll get the point.

There is more: “Ms. Hobson-West discovered the more radical groups didn’t necessarily have personal experience of vaccine damage but were often seasoned campaigners for causes such as alternative health and animal testing. Importantly she found the groups "did not make their case by arguing that the risks of vaccination outweighed the benefits. Instead they talked about risks as unknowns. Lack of knowledge is used by the groups to explain their wariness in advising vaccination." The leader of autism group the Informed Parent told Ms. HobsonWest: "The more you read on it, the more you realise what little we know about the body and health. There’s so much we don’t understand."

So what do we do to combat our own measles epidemic as it manifests in opposition to the use of “toxic sludge”? Paper #4 relates to ‘balanced press coverage’ in cases where reality does not show a need for balance. In other words, where science supports one side with close to complete consensus and yet the press insists on quoting the opposing view. John Oliver did a great version of this for climate change- showing what this really looks like ( In other words, if you have enough satisfied customers for your program and products, you can do the equivalent of what John Oliver did for biosolids acceptance. That is the case whether or not we can ever get the press to change their approach.

The final paper in the study discusses the vaccine situation in Britain using Sandman’s 12 primary components. I had no idea what this was until I read the paper. I had always understood risk as equal to hazard x exposure. Here risk is presented in terms of public understanding and fear. The revised risk equation is as follows:

Public risk perception = Hazard + Outrage

Where hazard is the scientific perspective and outrage equals the ‘factors that make the public worried, frightened, angry or otherwise upset’. The paper includes a table with primary components from Sandman’s model that shows what factors increase outrage. This is presented with general examples. A good number of these fit very well into the biosolids/public acceptance paradigm. A second table shows additional components that also apply directly to the case of biosolids. The paper also provides tips for risk communication that also are pertinent for people who read this library.

The article closes with a postscript in which the authors note the outbreak of measles that occurred in the UK in 2004 likely brought home the fact that not vaccinating kids was a much greater risk than the disproven risks associated with vaccination. We are likely not in a comparable position here for biosolids. Not land applying biosolids would result in its share of environmental damage as well as rate increases.

For us, the burden of proof of the benefits and safety of land application are on us. Listen to concerns, don’t have an attitude, but also be loud and proud of what you do. And get your kids their shots. Sally Brown University of Washington