It just was announced that a second child has died this year in RI from flu complications. At least three have died in Massachusetts and many other deaths are being reported across the country. In related news, there have been measles outbreaks in Washington State, New York and Texas, with additional cases reported in Oregon, Connecticut, Illinois and Georgia. A common thread – the children who were affected had not been vaccinated.
Measles is a childhood disease that was all but been eradicated in the US in the last century, but is now taking a serious upswing in reported cases across the country. It is not just coincidence that the percentage of children under 2 years old who haven’t received any vaccinations has quadrupled in the last 17 years. They aren’t getting the necessary protection against whooping cough and other pediatric infectious diseases either. Why? Because of a group of well-intended but very ill-informed activists.
In retrospect, it is easy to pinpoint when the anti-vaccine movement was born. In 1998, British researcher Andrew Wakefield’s infamous paper linking autism to the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) was published by The Lancet. However, even as concerned US agencies launched their own investigations, research linking the MMR vaccine to autism was unraveling. It was discovered that Wakefield had been paid by attorneys who represented parents suing vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield’s data was found to be fraudulent, his license was revoked and The Lancet retracted his study in 2010. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccine (AV) crusaders had already drawn and marked their battle lines.
Doubt and fear ran rampant. The AV movement acquired some impressive spokespersons, including Robert Kennedy Jr. In 2005, Kennedy published an article in Rolling Stone Magazine that hinted at government conspiracy: “Our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children.” Soon after, the article was found to have a number of factual errors, but again, this finding was ignored by the thousands of followers who had already taken on the mantle of self-righteous anger.
In recent years, anti-vaccination groups have been active on Facebook, sharing and posting information against vaccines and their safety. At the same time, there has been a rise in cases of measles and other infectious diseases across the United States. Unfortunately, this increase has been ignored by AV enthusiasts, and today, all but a few states allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations. States such as West Virginia and Mississippi, which do not allow nonmedical vaccine exemptions, have higher percentages of children getting vaccinated.
In 2017, Minnesota reported the state’s worst measles outbreak in decades. It was sparked by AV activists who targeted an immigrant community, spreading misinformation about the measles vaccine. The majority of 75 confirmed cases were young, unvaccinated Somali American children. In fact, the majority of US outbreaks have been linked to travelers who bring measles back from foreign countries. In other parts of the world, vaccines are not nearly as widely administered and there are still places where measles, small pox and other diseases, which few of the newer generation even remembers, are an active and ongoing threat.
Do the anti-vaccine proponents have a point? It seems incredible that the movement could continue for so long without any real fuel for momentum. There are people for whom vaccines aren’t appropriate; however, for the most part, the evidence that is rousing AVs to a fury is correlative rather than causative. On the surface, anecdotal stories seem convincing – autism is often detected and recognized for the first time at the age of 12 to 18 months, around the time the first dose of MMR is recommended. The timing is completely coincidental, but it does make it seem that the vaccine actually caused the autism. The truth? The incidence of autism is no higher in vaccinated children than it is in those who are not vaccinated.
In the meantime, anti-vaccine activists continue to protest, and children continue to suffer the consequences. Is there anything that can be done? Very little can be done to convince the stalwart proponents of AV that they are wrong, but you can make certain that you, and your own children, are protected. The development of vaccines is perhaps one of the greatest triumphs of modern medicine – and, in the words of immunologist Dennis Flaherty, “The alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”
The views expressed here represent the views of the author and not necessarily Motif.