In recent years, anti-vaccine proponents have been successful in persuading an increasing number of parents that their children don’t need to be vaccinated. Some anti-vaccine advocates, unfortunately, also come from the medical field. Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s articles allege that vaccines against measles cause autism. In addition, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have made second careers of being concerned mothers crusading against vaccination.
The sad fact is that neither science nor sense are on their side. Wakefield’s research is thoroughly discredited. Scientists at both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health, leading centers of U.S. medicine, are unequivocal that Wakefield’s data is not supported by the science behind either autism and vaccines.
There is no data indicating that vaccinations cause autism. In fact, researchers are still studying what does cause it. They have found that 90% of individuals with autism also have gastrointestinal problems — perhaps indicating a connection between autism and digestive health, but not between autism and vaccinations.
As for McCarthy, she is simply using a celebrity platform to promulgate what are in essence lies put into circulation by Wakefield and others.
Anti-Vaxxers Threaten Public Health
The other sad fact is that the growing ranks of anti-vaxxers are a danger to use all. A number of diseases that used to threaten illness or death have been eradicated by vaccines. Anti-vaxxers are bringing them back.
For instance, in 2002, the CDC announced that measles had been eradicated in the U.S. Measles can cause deafness and possibly death. However, measles is once again not only present in the U.S., but it’s on the upswing.
In Minnesota, measles was epidemic in 2015. A three-three-old Minnesota boy was identified as the patient zero, or the entry point. He exposed over 3,000 people.
His parents had read the erroneous reports that the measles vaccine caused autism. As a result, they didn’t vaccinate him, and he contracted measles on a family trip overseas.
They were not alone, either. In their community, vaccinations fell dramatically over the 2004 to 2014 period. In 2004, more than 90% of people were vaccinated. Ten years later, just over 50% were — and all as a result of the false information that there was a link between vaccines and autism.
Thanks to anti-vaxxer propaganda, the U.S. is no longer free of measles.
The vaccination of a large percentage of the population strengthens herd immunity. The anti-vaxxers threaten herd immunity.
Making a Good Health Measure Into Bad Health Fears
What the anti-vaxxers are doing has the potential to roll back one of the major medical successes of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1900s, one disease after another was fought into submission.
Influenza was a major epidemic in 1918, killing thousands of people. Flu still has the potential to kill people worldwide in pandemics. Even milder strains can kill the elderly. However, for the population as a whole, flu vaccine protects from common flu strains.
Polio was a major crippler of twentieth-century children until a vaccine was developed. Polio meant that an afternoon swim could result in contracting the disease, potentially resulting in life-long paralysis. The vaccine changed all that.
One of the tragedies is that the public health successes of vaccines made life seem safer, and inadvertently set the stage for the anti-vaxxers. Although infectious diseases are still among us (Zika virus and Ebola come to mind), it has been decades since such childhood diseases like measles and polio were commonly viewed as threats.
Because of vaccinations, they ceased to be present dangers — to the point where the anti-vaxxers seem to have forgotten that the world is full of health dangers.
Anti-vaxxers draw on a historical wellspring of fears concerning vaccination. Historians of medicine point out that people a century ago feared that vaccines would cause disease — partly because some vaccines were made of live viruses. But such fears were ill-founded then, just as they were ill-founded now.
Anti-vaxxers also seem to be people who are more swayed by alarmism and anecdote than by science and rational thought. They may also be more politically conservative and distrust government claims such as those by the CDC.
Again, though, the data here is clear: There is no link between autism and vaccinations. Yet the science has not persuaded anti-vaxxers.
When a Personal Choice Affects All of Us
Anti-vaxxers frequently emphasise the role of personal choice in the vaccination decision. The backdrop is the increasing emphasis on personal choice in contemporary life.
However, the anti-vaxxer choice is not solely a personal choice. Because diseases are spread among social units — many of them are carried through bodily fluids or through the air — the choice to exert a precaution against diseases is a social one as well.
After all, society has supported quarantines of people with infectious diseases when there was no readily available treatment in decades past. Those suffering from yellow fever and tuberculosis, for example, were isolated until the disease had passed. Indeed, as we’ve seen with the Zika virus and Ebola, treatment for untreatable infectious diseases includes quarantine and protection for medical personnel now.
In some ways, vaccination is the positive side of disease protection, and perhaps it ought to be treated as more mandatory than a choice because of is potential social impact.