Shots Fired: The Rise of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

About a month ago, students at the University of California, Irvine (including myself) received an email from Marcelle Holmes, Assistant Vice Chancellor of the Wellness, Health, and Counseling Services here at UCI informing us that there had been an outbreak of the measles virus in Orange County. Moreover, they identified UCI’s own Francisco Ayala Science Library as a possible point of exposure. Upon further research, it appeared that the outbreak began back in December after an unvaccinated woman became sick and contagious with the disease while at Disneyland. Many visitors at the park, mostly children, soon afterward contracted the disease. State health officials have recently confirmed that there is a total of 107 confirmed cases in California, more than a third of which have been linked back to the exposure at Disneyland. During an outbreak in 2014, 57% of the 288 victims who contracted measles were unvaccinated by choice– only 10% of those who contracted it were vaccinated.

Measles is an airborne disease which causes a high fever, cough, and a terrible rash throughout the infected person’s body. Between 1855 and 2005, the measles disease has killed over 200 million people world-wide, making it one of the world’s most deadly diseases. Thanks in part to vaccinations and advancements in medical infrastructure, the number of both cases and deaths throughout the world has significantly dropped. The disease is now mainly confined to third world countries that lack the resources of industrialized nations. Back in the year 2000, the disease was actually eradicated here in the United States. But a combination of factors has led to its recent resurgence in the U.S. and other industrialized first world nations.

This outbreak of measles is actually a sign of a much more frightening trend. Throughout the United States, there has been a growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, be it for religious beliefs or the absurd notion that vaccines cause autism or other diseases and disorders.

The anti-vaccination movement is as old as vaccines themselves, but this new wave of anti-vaxxers has its roots with former British surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield and twelve other authors published a paper which supposedly linked autism spectrum disorders with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Eight of the twelve children they used as test subjects developed what Wakefield described as “behavioral symptoms” that had begun within two weeks after receiving the MMR vaccine. The paper itself did not prove any causal connection between autism spectrum disorders and the MMR vaccine. But in a press conference before its publication, Wakefield called for a suspension of the MMR vaccine, stating that the three-in-one vaccine should be further investigated.

Andrew Wakefield.

Wakefield’s statement to the press, not his actual research itself, caused a moral panic throughout the Western world. After Wakefield’s comments, vaccination rates in Britain, Ireland, and the United States dropped; in Britain, they decreased from 92% to below 80%. Prior to Wakefield’s comments, Britain was only three percentage points away from reaching herd immunity from measles.

Handy infographic which shows how herd immunization works. Image via the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Handy infographic which shows how herd immunization works. Image via the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Children with cancer that have undergone chemotherapy are often times left with a weakened immune system, with any antibodies that they develop from vaccines being destroyed by the harsh treatment. Since their immune system is simply too weak to receive any new vaccines, these children rely heavily on herd immunity. The problem with herd immunity is that for most preventable diseases, 80% or more of the population must be vaccinated in order for it to work. Contracting one of these preventable diseases might mean spell death for these children.

Wakefield’s medical research (if it can be called that) was full of flaws and errors that should have made it ridiculed and regarded as nothing more than trash by both the medical community and the public at large. No researcher has been able to reproduce Wakefield’s test results to this day, and it is very unlikely that any will ever be able to do so. While Wakefield’s paper stated that none of the children used in the research showed signs of autism until after they were vaccinated, five of the twelve had previously documented pre-existing developmental issues. The parents of the children were also recruited for the study by anti-MMR campaigners, with the entire study being commissioned and funded by an anti-MMR group attempting to bring litigation against the company that made the vaccines.

Shortly after the press conference in which he raised doubts about the 3-in-1 MMR vaccine, a team of researchers in Japan found that there was no causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. They studied both children that received the 3-in-1 vaccines and children who received the three vaccinations separately and found no sign to indicate that the MMR vaccine caused autism. After the moral panic and backlash from the medical that ensued, ten of the twelve researches that had co-authored the paper with Wakefield published a retraction of an interpretation of the study, which read:

We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between (the) vaccine and autism, as the data were insufficient. However the possibility of such a link was raised, and consequent events have had major implications for public health. In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon these findings in the paper, according to precedent.

Despite that the correlation Wakefield found between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders was completely baseless, it had wide-reaching implications. More than just decreasing the rate of parents vaccinating their children, Wakefield’s comments led to an increase in distrust in the government.

Pin-headed famous people such as actress Jenny McCarthy, actor Aidan Quinn, and reality TV star Kristin Cavallari further echoed the absurd notion that vaccines cause autism. The endorsement of these celebrities have propagated the anti-vaccine movement in the United States. McCarthy’s anti-vaccination sentiment stems from her son Evan’s autism diagnosis in 2005.

Evan first showed symptoms of the disorder when he began having seizures, which some experts would suggest is more consistent with Landau–Kleffner syndrome, a syndrome often misdiagnosed as autism. McCarthy claimed that her son was “cured” of autism by chelation therapy, a medical treatment that is used to remove heavy metals from the body. Various health organizations have confirmed that the therapy is not effective for treating anything other heavy metal poisoning. McCarthy believed (wrongly) that the mercury-based preservative thiomersal found in many popular vaccines causes autism, thus believing that chelation therapy would remove the mercury from her son’s body, effectively “curing” his autism. The National Institution of Mental Health flatly rejected the use of this therapy to treat autism, stating the risks posed by chelation therapy, such as heart attacks, strokes, and cardiac arrest, far outweigh any potential benefits that autistic children may receive from it.

Many would expect the anti-vaccination movement to have the most support in the American South, but it is actually more liberal states such as Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, and California where the movement is the strongest. In these states, about 5% of kindergartners went unvaccinated because of non-medical reasons last year. California alone is home to nearly 15,000 kindergartners who were not vaccinated because of their parent’s objections. While these numbers may not seem that large, one must keep in mind that it only takes one unvaccinated child to spread a disease and potentially start an outbreak.

Take the case of Jeremiah Mitchell, who contracted meningitis at the age of six. An outbreak of meningitis infected five children including Jeremiah and took the lives of two other children. Jeremiah’s school district did not require children his age to get a vaccine for meningitis and his parents took every medical recommendation necessary. That made no difference because someone had brought meningitis into the community, exposing Jeremiah and other children to the disease.

Jeremiah prior to contracting meningitis.

Within a matter of half a day, Jeremiah went from being your average, fun-loving, smiling six-year-old to a poor little boy in a coma fighting for his life. Doctors had to amputate both of Jeremiah’s arms and legs as well as a large portion of his face in order to get rid of the meningitis.

Jeremiah’s mom helping him put on his prosthetic arms.

The anti-vaxxer movement is one that is completely baseless and worryingly dangerous. Personal freedom is one thing, but when you put your own children’s lives and the lives of other children at risk over a piece of pseudoscience, you are just being plain ignorant and reckless. There is absolutely no credible science at all that would point to a correlation between MMR vaccines (or any other vaccines) and autism. None at whatsoever. Yet people continue to listen to the words of celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy who have no scientific background, thus further perpetuating the ignorance and misinformation of the anti-vaxxer movement. From 2003 to 2015, there have been 6,347 preventable deaths and 146,046 cases of preventable illnesses. How many of these deaths and illness can be attributed to the anti-vaxxers is unclear, but the anti-vaxxer movement has either directly or indirectly caused these preventable deaths and illnesses.

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