Society faces lots of problems that science can’t yet fix, from the troubling rise in asthma to the lack of a cheap energy source that doesn’t harm the environment. But there are also plenty of cases in which scientists know enough to avert tragedy. Whether society acts on that knowledge is a separate issue.
The resurgence of whooping cough offers one example. A new type of pertussis vaccine was introduced in the 1990s that avoided many of the worrisome, but ultimately harmless, side effects of its predecessor. As biomedical writer Nathan Seppa reports, it is now clear that the new vaccine is much weaker than the old one. And a disease that was all but eradicated in the United States 40 years ago is causing outbreaks with tens of thousands of cases, a handful of them lethal. But the obvious solution — return to the old vaccine — is considered a nonstarter in this age of vaccine paranoia.