If you’re a parent who has faced the decision of to whether to give your child certain vaccinations or you’re simply curious about the controversy that often surrounds routine vaccinations, you’ve probably at least heard about the anti-vaccine movement. Despite the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing the spread of many diseases worldwide, some people doubt their safety and even claim that vaccines can lead to further health complications.
To better understand the anti-vaccine movement and the harm it can cause, let’s explore the controversy and confusion surrounding the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Measles Cases Are on the Rise
In New York, babies are on an accelerated vaccine schedule in an effort to prevent statewide outbreaks of measles from turning into an epidemic. In Europe, too, the frequency of measles cases have hit a record high.
In an official podcast, Sarah Boseley, health editor at the Guardian states, “The WHO has a goal to eradicate measles in Europe by 2020, so it should be almost gone. But last year, there was the highest number of measles cases in Europe for 20 years — 60,000 and 72 deaths, and that’s mostly children and vulnerable adults.” These numbers beg the question: what has led to this recent rise in vaccine skepticism?
The answer dates back to statements made by British doctor Andrew Wakefield at a health conference in 1998. While there have been vaccine skeptics since the time vaccines were invented, the resistance against the MMR vaccine can be attributed to this specific conference, now just over 20 years ago.
Bold Claims Cause Alarm
In the Guardian podcast, Boseley describes how Wakefield announced that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) childhood vaccination program was linked to autism and then advised parents against it. Boseley, who was present at the conference, recalls how Wakefield’s bold claim “alarmed people massively and caused all the anxiety that followed.” Even though the link between the MMR vaccine and autism has long since been discredited, Wakefield’s words successfully set the stage for thousands of anti-vaccine groups across the world.
At this point, you may be thinking, “But this all happened 20 years ago. How does this explain the recent measles outbreaks?”
Well, after Wakefield was discredited, he vanished from the public eye. That is, up until July, when pictures of him and his supermodel girlfriend were released. These pictures brought him back into the limelight, and as Boseley states, this made people “do a double-take and look at what Wakefield had actually been up to.”
As it turns out, Wakefield has been in Texas for years, still working away at his theory connecting the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield has done a number of interviews and even directed and produced the film “Vaxxed,” which claims that the CDC has been covering up the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Robert De Niro, whose son suffers from autism, wanted this film to be premiered at the Tribeca film festival.
Soon afterward, Donald Trump stated that one of his employee’s children was diagnosed with autism a week after receiving the MMR vaccine — obviously a connection with no scientific backing. Wakefield then attended one of Trump’s inauguration balls, further promoting the opinion that Trump supported the doctor’s original claims. And so, through a series of events and appearances, this once discredited doctor came back into public view, fueling the re-examination and resurgence of anti-vaccine propaganda.
The Best Treatment Is Prevention
Unfortunately, the anti-vaccine movement is a threat to human health, undoubtedly proven by the re-introduction of measles into American society. Measles is a highly contagious disease, causing high fever, cough, runny nose, abdominal pain, and a distinctive rash on the face, body, and in the mouth. While many people will recover from these symptoms, measles can cause serious long-term complications or even death, especially for infants, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems.
The best way to deal with measles and other dangerous diseases is to prevent them from spreading in the first place, and the MMR and other vaccines do just that. There are countless instances where vaccines have prevented the spread of once common diseases as well as the elimination of some conditions. For example, the BCG vaccine has helped protect people from tuberculosis, making the world a safer place to live.
Similarly, the two-dose varicella vaccine has helped greatly reduce the rates of chickenpox and is now even a standard admission requirement for many schools. Dana Perella, a surveillance coordinator working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, states that “A second dose of varicella vaccine provides school-aged children with better protection against the chickenpox virus, compared to one dose alone or no vaccination.”
Returning our focus to the MMR, this vaccine is one of the most thoroughly studied (as a result of prior controversy) and is deemed safe and effective. Unfortunately, fear, confusion, and anger can be powerful tools in convincing people what to believe, and “anti-vaxxers” often dismiss scientific findings in favor of unbacked beliefs about side effects and risks.
The numbers show that the rising demonization of vaccines in popular media can have catastrophic consequences. As stated in the article The Anti-vaccination Movement: A Regression in Modern Medicine, published in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science, “It is of the utmost importance that all stakeholders in the medical world - physicians, researchers, educators, and governments - unite to curb the influence of the anti-vaccination movement targeting parents.”
Research shows that even parents who do favor vaccination can be easily confused by the ongoing debate surrounding vaccines, leading them to question their choices. Because of this, it is crucial that parents understand the importance of vaccines and are given at least a basic knowledge of how they work.
Like all medical interventions, it’s true that vaccines do have some level of risk. However, the risks associated with vaccines are dramatically lower than the risks of catching these diseases and allowing them to spread. Ultimately, this is the message that needs to be made clear to safeguard human health.