Wednesday, 30 January 2013

For F's sake

I don't usually engage in arguments. When I encounter opinions that are different to mine, I'm usually open to them, and I don't care to challenge other points of view when it's of little real consequence. Really, you're welcome to think whatever you want if it doesn't affect anyone but yourself. Live life and explore this existence in whatever way you see fit.

But I guess, like anybody, there's some issues that press the right buttons and ignite that little arguing flame in the cockles of my heart.

For example, vaccination. Adults choosing not to vaccinate themselves is one thing. Adults choosing not to vaccinate their children is completely another.

For the record, I had my vaccines, I'm fine. My children are fully vaccinated, they're fine. I understand that, very occasionally, children have bad reactions to vaccine components. Some of them die or have permanent problems, that's very sad, I'd be shattered if it happened to me. But I'd be no less shattered if my son was hit by a car. Nothing in this life is 100% risk free. And the threat to my children and children everywhere from diseases like polio and measles is so much greater than the miniscule risk of having problems with vaccination that, for anyone who trusts modern medicine, vaccination is a no brainer.

These days, where children dying from measles is almost unheard of in a country like Australia, people who actually have no expertise in these matters are somehow given a platform to spread misinformation about issues like vaccination. As a result, a growing number of people get bad information and end up thinking that it's okay not to vaccinate their kids. These are the kids who get and spread whooping cough, because not enough people are vaccinated. These are the pockets of population where diseases like measles are making a comeback in our society. Parents these days have no idea what it was like to live with polio, we're so lucky to be free of a host of child-killing diseases. Frankly, people who don't believe in vaccination are bonkers and their kids are suffering because of it.

Unfortunately, their decisions put my children at risk, too. Maybe their children should be sent to separate schools of their own where they can all get sick and die of measles and polio together, far away from my children? I shy away from that sort of segregation, but if people believe in their right to choose about vaccination, shouldn't people also believe in the rights of parents to send their kids to schools that are free of preventable diseases? Touchy issue.

So today, I was driving home from work, listening to the radio, when another thorny subject came up. Fluoridation of water supply. Seems the Cairns Regional Council has today voted to cease adding fluoride to our city's water supply. First I'd heard of it, but apparently it's a done deal.

This is another issue where all the reputable subject matter experts, such as the World Health Organisation, the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Dental Association, say, "It's good for you, not bad for you, good for society more broadly, and this is backed by peer-reviewed science." And of course, there's a whole bunch of other people, claiming to be knowledgable but actually having no verifiable credibility, who say that fluoride is a toxin and it's doing you harm and what the hell is it doing in people's drinking water... these people somehow get given as much credence as the genuine experts, and we therefore have a situation where your average citizen can't easily get the true story.

The council's line is that the Local Governments Association of Queensland has an official position that fluoridation of water supplies is akin to "mass medication" and shouldn't be done without the prior approval of constituents. Righto. Chlorine or ozone in your water apparently doesn't qualify as "mass medication", according to the LGAQ, but fluoridation does. Never mind that fluoride occurs naturally in the earth and in all fresh water, sometimes in greater concentrations than under controlled fluoridation scenarios. The LGAQ is clearly a more credible authority on public health issues than the WHO, the AMA and the ADA... pffft.

Ah, but this isn't about public health, this is about choice. People should have a choice about whether they're drinking fluoridated water. I don't disagree with this. I simply disagree with the notion that adding tiny amounts of fluoride to a town water supply means that you no longer have a choice. Get a filter. Drink bottled water. Install a rainwater tank and drink it fresh from the sky. Or get it from below the ground. Recycle your grey water. Move off the water grid. Move towns. Move countries. More choices than you can poke a toothbrush at. Don't tell me you don't have a choice.

On the subject of councils now having a choice about fluoridation, there are two issues. The first is, what is the status quo? Do you currently not fluoridate, or do you already have the infrastructure in place and have fluoride in your water? This leads into the second issue of community consultation. If a change to the status quo is proposed, representatives are obliged to consult extensively before implementing the change.

If you don't currently fluoridate, and don't have the infrastructure, and have better things to spend a couple of million bucks on, that's fine. Tell people where they can get their fluoride tablets and then move on.

In the case of Cairns, the status quo is fluoridation. We have millions of dollars worth of fluoridation equipment already in place and working. Our community already gets the health benefits of this practice. Proposing that you are going to change this practice, for whatever reason, is fine, but the community needs a genuine opportunity to have input before you go and make a final decision. Our local councillors have failed to do this. They certainly didn't go to the most recent election on a platform of ceasing fluoridation. They haven't so much as conducted an independent survey to gauge community opinion. And they can't even claim to be making this decision on the basis of some verifiable sort of evidence.

So well done, councillors, you've delivered a solid slap in the face to everyone who believes in good science, good public health and good evidence-based decision making. You've completely F'd it up. Congratulations.