Without question, the most controversial, rumour-driven health debate of the past 15 years regards the safety and efficacy of vaccines. At face value, skepticism about vaccines makes sense. Why inject something that, in another form, is harmful to you, when you are not sick at all? Furthermore, a certain amount of skepticism towards medical and scientific discoveries is necessary to discern false outcomes. However, in the case of vaccines, false scientific outcomes were published in a top medical journal, sparking an anti-vaccine debate that continues to threaten public health systems to this day. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield co-authored a study in the Lancet that linked the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), providing the impetus for the present-day anti-vaccine movement. This study was later found to have used falsified data and was subsequently retracted by the publisher. Despite this and numerous follow up studies supporting the efficacy and safety of vaccines, lingering fears remain. Here, I highlight the absurd evolving debate against childhood vaccines, and defend the recent mandates by U.S. state governments to make all childhood vaccines mandatory in public schools.

Child being immunized against diphtheria in the 1920s.
Child being immunized against diphtheria in the 1920s.

Accusations of the MMR vaccine causing ASD have lost popularity as numerous scientific studies have determined that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and ASD. After the Lancet’s retraction of the 1998 paper, the anti-vaccine campaign became strongly represented in the media by Hollywood personalities such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. Subsequently, the focus shifted away from autism “links” to the preservatives and “harmful ingredients” within vaccines, such as thiothimerosal. While shown not to be harmful in vaccines, public health agencies and vaccine manufacturers agreed to eliminate such ingredients in response to public criticism. Afterwards, the debate shifted again, with proponents stating that their real worry was the number of vaccines provided in such a short span of time.

Once again, scientific studies confirmed that the conventional vaccine schedule was not harmful for children and was appropriate for everyone without a medical condition. Nevertheless, fearing low vaccination rates, many doctors still provide alternative vaccine schedules for concerned parents. While it seems illogical to hang onto disproved arguments, haphazardly jumping from one concern to another has allowed proponents of the anti-vaccine movement to keep anti-vaccine fears in the news cycles. In sum, media-savvy vaccine detractors frame a constant pseudoscientific debate, whereas the scientific and medical communities have consistently defended vaccine use.

In 2015, the anti-vaccine movement shifted once again, in reaction to government mandates regarding vaccination rates. In California, Senate bill 227 removed non-medical exemptions for 10 childhood vaccines. The bill, similar to laws already passed in Mississippi and West Virginia, made childhood vaccines a requirement for attending public schools. In response, detractors shifted the conversation away from “scientific” debates, to the right to choose for parents and religious groups. As the arguments escalated, the co-sponsors of the bill were threatened, harassed, and required extra security detail.

The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases.” 

– Jerry Brown, California Governor 

Unfortunately, while most anti-vaccine fears have been thoroughly investigated and discredited, moral arguments against parental and religious rights cannot be directly disputed with scientific rigour. In reality, infectious diseases are unaffected by moral arguments, and will continue to persist without medical and scientific intervention. As such, childhood vaccination is not a parental or religious rights issue, but a public health one. Decreasing the overall vaccination rates in virtual disease incubators such as schools and hospitals threatens the health of the entire community. Medical exemptions for allergies or other complications are still permitted; no legislator, doctor, or scientist is advocating that every single individual must be vaccinated in every circumstance. However, herd immunity must be maintained to constrain disease incidence. Thus, in a climate where anti-science views have large and convincing media platforms, laws must be put in place to maintain public health.

Fortunately, with increasing government support, childhood vaccines should remain commonplace, at least in the U.S. In Canada, childhood vaccinations are not mandatory. Although Ontario and New Brunswick require proof of immunization for school entrance, religious or personal belief exemptions can be claimed to side-step vaccination requirements.

Furthermore, Canada does not have a national vaccination registry, so it is difficult to follow up on the public health impact that these vaccines have. While Canada has historically had high rates of vaccination and low incidence of the diseases they prevent, growing anti-vaccine sentiments threaten that record. Experts suggest that a national vaccination registry may prove informative and necessary in the future. It is clear that childhood vaccines are amongst the safest and most effective health measures we have. Perhaps it is time for Canada to ensure that they are here to stay.

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Dennis Lee

Dennis is a second year graduate student interested in sports, science, and shenanigans. Especially shenanigans.

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