You’d have to forgive a new parent their initial trepidation. The very word “vaccination”, after all, might evoke in some visions of a deranged scientist in a lab coat jabbing wildly at their child with strange fluids, like some macabre hack-and-slash killer from a horror movie. That’s natural. We’re at our most emotional when we’re thinking of our kids, and our desire to protect and nurture them is beyond measure. However, in order to keep our families healthy, happy, and strong, it is a response that needs to be overcome.
This paranoia and fear, which currently manifests as a generation of “anti-vaxxers”, is nothing new. Edward Jenner, back in the late eighteenth century, met such resistance after he created the first vac-cine, designed to counter a disease called smallpox that was killing 400,000 people a year. Caused by the virus Variola major, the disease would blister and scar the skin of its unfortunate hosts, blinding some and killing one-third of those infected. Jenner, searching desperately for a way to prevent its spread, noticed something curious however. Milk-maids, although sporting nasty blisters on their hands from the cowpox virus present on bovine udders, did not contract the disease. Did previous exposure to cowpox (a less virulent relative of smallpox) in some way prevent the development of the dis-ease, he wondered? In 1796, Jenner inoculated a young boy named James Phipps with the pus from one of these cowpox blisters and then exposed him to scabs from smallpox patients to test his hypothesis. Phipps developed a slight fever, but quickly recovered and otherwise walked away unscathed.
Despite its life saving power, parents throughout England objected to vaccination strongly. They found the act of inoculation barbaric, while the clergy seconded their outrage out of concern for the use of animal secretions in the vaccine. Over the next century, the mistrust between the public and the scientific community would grow so great that over a hundred thousand citizens would come out to protest compulsory vaccination laws in the city of Leicester in 1885. When all was done and dusted though, it was the vaccination technique that Jenner helped pioneer that led to the complete eradication of smallpox just under two centuries later by the World Health Organization. Vaccination, in the cases of smallpox, polio, and many other diseases, has undoubtedly changed the course of history for the better. However, just as in the 19th century, modern opposition threatens to derail all of that good work. In order to strengthen belief in vaccination, education is needed — dispelling the myths that surround it is the best way to increase its adoption once more.
The first pervasive myth that often scares parents away from vaccination is the link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. In an explosive paper published in 1998 by the prominent medical journal Lancet, Andrew Wakefield, an English gastroenterologist, claimed that nine of twelve previously normal children he studied developed autism within weeks of MMR administration. Panic overtook society, and vaccination uptake in England dropped from 92% in 1995 to 80% in 2003. The link was damning but had just one issue — it wasn’t backed by any science. In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, Brian Deer of the Sunday Times inter-viewed the families of the study’s subjects and found that only one of the nine children purported to have developed autism actually had developed autism. Five of the rest had pre-existing conditions, and a further three didn’t have autism at all. Further sleuthing put the final nail in the paper’s coffin — Andrew Wakefield had been paid 150 pounds per hour through-out the course of the study by parents eager to launch an anti-vaccine lawsuit through a lawyer named Richard Barr. Although the paper was eventually retracted, and his medical license stripped, Mr. Wakefield earned roughly 436,000 pounds from the fiasco and did irreparable damage to the kids suffering from the measles outbreaks that ran amok following his forgery.
Although among the first in the modern era, the purported link to autism wasn’t the last allegation to hit vaccines; soon, mistrust popularized the idea of immune “overload” and crippled vaccine uptake yet again. The MMR vaccine, as mentioned above, provides protection against measles, the mumps, and rubella simultaneously. It does this by presenting the body with weakened forms of the viruses it is designed to immunize against; this way, the body gains an introduction to the antigens (the toxins that the immune system responds to) that the viral invader produces and learns to respond to them without threat of actual infection. Some parents worry, though, that the MMR vaccine, by providing exposure to three different (albeit weakened) viruses at the same time, will “overload” their child’s immune system and leave them vulnerable to secondary infections. While the idea seems plausible in theory, research has shown the exact opposite to be true. A study from the Health Protection Agency in England looked at children between 12- and 23-months-old and found that the MMR vaccine led to a reduced risk of both bacterial and viral infection in the thirty days following administration, with no increased risk in any time period thereafter. The Center for Disease Control in the United States added their voice in support, noting that the efficiency of multi-antigen vaccination also saved parents considerable time and money.
As these rumours swirled, one more myth came to dominate vaccine discussion. Concerned parents, politicians, and even celebrities like Robert De Niro found a vaccine ingredient that just wasn’t sitting right with them. A ubiquitous vaccine preservative, the compound thiomersal sounded innocent enough; however, the fact that it contained mercury escaped no one. Mercury gets a bad rap today, and rightfully so. If you’ve ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you’d be interested to know that the Mad Hatter’s madness didn’t simply strike out of the blue—Lewis Carroll, the author of the classic work, took inspiration from real-life hatters, who used mercury nitrate to turn animal fur into the felt they need-ed. Prolonged exposure to the element was horrible, as many craftsmen soon developed hallucinations, physical tremors, and a host of personality disorders. The heavy metal, as scientists eventually discovered, is incredibly toxic to the central nervous system and can be lethal in sufficient doses. However, the form in which mercury is present in the human body matters, and with thiomersal, mercury’s presence is safe. A mercury derivative known as methylmercury is the form that is toxic to humans, and its presence in seafood is the reason regulatory bodies advise limiting the consumption of certain fish. However, when thiomersal is metabolized by the human body, it breaks down into ethylmercury and another compound called thiosalicylate, both of which are excreted with ease. Mercury is not allowed to build up, and so its deleterious effects are never felt. The World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products have all launched independent studies that reject any link between thiomersal and an increased health risk. There is no scientific reason to doubt the safety of vaccines, and until peer-reviewed evidence arises to the contrary, these myths will continue to be exactly that — myths, and nothing more. Some, however, do not frame the issues surrounding vaccines as medical in nature. Instead, according to politicians like Rand Paul and Chris Christie, it is a matter of liberty, and parents must have “some measure of choice.” There’s a serious flaw in this argument, though. Libertarians believe that the individual should have complete freedom, and that ideal is admirable — but freedom doesn’t give one the right to inflict harm on others, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. John Locke, the grandfather of the Libertarian movement himself, declared that the paths that one pursues cannot harm the “Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” of another. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children not only endanger the well-being of their own progeny, but also the health of the ill, the old, and those too young to undergo the process. It provides a vector for disease to target the most vulnerable among society and infringe upon their right to life, and that’s why the debate surrounding vaccination shouldn’t be about choice either. Vaccination is a duty that one holds to the rest of society, and so the faster this clamour is laid to rest, the better.