The rise of the 21st century anti-vaxxer epidemic

The alarming rise of measles across Europe and the US has health officials scrambling to contain the damage of what is being called the worst outbreak of the 21st century – the anti-vaxxer epidemic. Vaccines have become a victim of their own success, and the mistrust in their use demands a global effort to understand what has caused this behavioral shift, and resulted in a society wanting to take one step backwards rather than a leap forward.

It all started with the cow

To understand how vaccines came about and why they work, we must rewind back to 1767 when Edward Jenner, an English physician came up with a way to halt the smallpox epidemic that killed approximately 500 million people. Following the observation that milkmaids rarely developed smallpox, he decided to take the fluid from a cowpox blister (containing a virus similar to smallpox) from a milkmaid, and injected this into an eight-year old boy (1). When the boy was later injected with the smallpox virus, he was immune to the disease and interestingly, this is what gives vaccine its name – derived from the word vacca which means cow in Latin.

As early as the 18th century, vaccines were understood to go hand in hand with the immune system. Vaccines work because they essentially ‘prime’ the body into believing there is an infection as they contain either live-attenuated virus, virus-specific antigens, or viral DNA, which the body immediately recognizes as a foreign threat. From the moment any foreign matter has entered the body, the immune system begins preparing for the fight against the infection similar to the way we prepare for natural disasters, such as hurricanes. Just as we must run to the supermarket, stock up on canned foods and fill up the tank with gasoline – the immune system needs time to stock up antibodies to protect itself and fight back against perilous infections when the clock strikes. Certain viruses are extremely potent, and without previous priming the body is unable to fight back against the virus effectively.

The vaccine misinterpretation
If you have watched the news recently, then you will have witnessed two opposing views regarding vaccination. On one side, you have health organizations scrambling to find alternative strategies to contain the increasing spread of measles and whooping cough which was thought to have been eradicated by vaccination. But on the other end of the spectrum, there has been a strong shift in opinion which favors vaccination as an individualistic choice rather than a citizen-enforced necessity to protect the population as a whole. Fueling this disastrous notion is what many are calling the anti-vaccine movement. This movement is currently being led by individuals who strongly believe that vaccines have a direct causative link to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Astonishingly, this movement thrives on the idea that medical research is a matter of opinion where everyone, regardless of their level of education on the matter, is entitled to have one.

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Vaccination cartoon horizontal-3-page-001.jpg
Anti-Vaxxer family in a Vaccination clinic. Tom Reed @tomreedstudio.com (copyright)

Bad science is dangerous
Medical research has saved millions of lives and brought about some cures our ancestors only dreamed of having, but professionals in the field are well aware that bad science does exist and can have terrible consequences.  In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, notoriously known as the physician who gave anti-vaxxers its platform, had his paper published in The Lancet claiming a clear link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine existed. Many believed it to be probable since autism-like symptoms typically arise at the same time children receive their MMR vaccine. Ultimately, the anti-vaccine platform took off regardless of the fact that the study was based on just 12 individuals. But despite having his medical license revoked and his work retracted years later due to fabricated data, Wakefield still persists in campaigning against vaccines with fraudulent research findings that have already been debunked. As a result, the movement has contributed to the enormous rise of vaccination anxieties, which evidently lead to the 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota. Additionally, another controversial paper by Bernard Rimland and Woody McGinnis, of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego, California was recently retracted from the journal Lab Medicine which relied heavily on the now discredited work of Wakefield.

 “Science is not democratic. It does not have a point of view”
Over the last decade, a clear battle between health organization and the anti-vaccine movement has been taking place. There is no denying that vaccines have been a victim of their own success and that the media and politics have played a large role in this, but the true danger lies with the person behind the computer screen, or the news outlet that chooses which information to believe on the premise of opinion rather than facts. This is what psychologists call cognitive bias and has clearly led to a society practicing the unhealthy and irresponsible behavior we see today. Information is the most powerful language – and the catastrophic anti-vaxxer epidemic caused by the Wakefield paper is a real-life example of how fraudulent science can be misused to benefit politicians and the media to spread fear. It is no coincidence that the two papers claiming a link between vaccines and ASD have been retracted, however in both cases, perhaps a little too late.  In the words of prominent science journalist Piero Angela: “Science is not democratic. It does not have a point of view”. Science is not of a political nature and cannot be based on opinions. Vaccines have increased the human life span by 30 years and saved many lives.

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Now, more than ever, we as a society must understand the importance of herd immunity. To eradicate life-threatening diseases like smallpox, polio, and measles, we depend on herd immunity to limit the spread of infection. Simply put, we cannot have a divided community in which a part has not been vaccinated while the rest have kept up with their regular vaccination schemes. Government officials and news outlets should emphasize that some people are too young or too immune-compromised to receive a vaccination, and their survival essentially depends on the health of others around them, so they too, must be vaccinated. Ultimately, we as a society must come together so we may continue to leap forward rather than take a step backwards.

 

Bhavna Karnani

 

References:

  1. Riedel, S., “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination.” Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent), 2005.

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