In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published an article, unaware of the serious repercussions his work would have in public health around the world. His study claimed to have found a correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine (which prevents measles, mumps and rubella). Since then, his article has been debunked countless times throughout the last two decades. Wakefield would eventually go on to lose his medical license after being found guilty of unethical practices by Britain’s General Medical Council. Nonetheless, the damage had been done. Wakefield’s pseudoscientific article gave rise to one of the biggest health threats to the modern world — the anti-vaccination movement.
Lancet, the journal that published the infamous article, retracted it as soon as evidence showing Wakefield’s conflict of interest and manipulation of data during the study became public information. Unfortunately, it was too late. Wakefield is now considered a martyr-like figure amongst the growing community of anti-vaccination parents. Depicted as the tragic victim of a ruthless campaign of character assassination, Wakefield has a large following that continues to believe that he exposed an inconvenient truth — that drug corporations and governments around the world are seeking to remain hidden from the rest of the population. Scientists have had significant trouble successfully replicating his study’s findings, but that doesn’t prevent Wakefield from lecturing at whichever conspiracy convention he is invited to.
While Wakefield’s credibility in the scientific community is non-existent, he has become the leading figure of a growing community of misinformed parents, called “anti-vaxxers.” Anti-vaxxers refuse to vaccinate their kids, mainly because they are convinced the risks outweighs the benefits. They rationalize this dangerous decision by arguing that there are enough vaccinated children in schools that their own will not run the risk of contracting the virus. They simply believe that these preventable diseases are not serious enough to justify injecting their kids with science they don’t understand. Nevertheless, despite the belief that vaccinations won’t prevent illness, many of these extremely contagious diseases can have life-threatening consequences. Measles, for example, spreads through mere coughing or sneezing,and the two main severe complications are pneumonia and encephalitis if left untreated. The measles vaccine is 93 to 97 percent effective at preventing the disease and there hasn’t been any other research (except that from the disgraced Andrew Wakefield) able to link the vaccine to autism.
For many, the anti-vax movement is just an easy target for jokes and memes on social media — pseudoscience akin to essential oils or crystal healing. Nevertheless, the consequences of this recent health fad are terrifying. Measles was declared to be eliminated in 2000 in the United States until the number of parents choosing to not vaccinate their kids steadily increased following the publication of Wakefield’s article. This has resulted in almost yearly major outbreaks of measles around the world. Anti-vaxxers are becoming a major public health threat. They are convinced that their refusal to vaccinate their children is actually protecting them from long-term effects. In reality, it leaves them vulnerable to suffer the horrible effects of preventable diseases.
These parents are grossly misinformed. Their ignorance harms not only their children but also the larger population around them. Vaccines are not part of a large conspiracy by drug companies to harm children. Inoculation is one of the greatest scientific advances in history. They are one of the main factors allowing children a greater likelihood of survival past infancy in the modern U.S. — far better odds than they faced a century ago. The arguments fueling the anti-vax movement are based on a retracted article written two decades ago that has been proven to be false countless times. Yet, many parents have decided they have the medical knowledge enough to risk their babies and others around them, often based on a Google search. The reality is, most of the individuals advocating for this movement have no training or formal education whatsoever regarding vaccines. Anti-vaccination advocates have persuaded other parents by feeding distrust and fear-mongering propaganda around pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession. These myths surrounding vaccinations resemble more of an Alex Jones radio episode than scientifically sound arguments.
The best possible solution to prevent any more outbreaks of preventable disease is by requiring parents to vaccinate. There are those who would argue the government should keep their hands away from their babies, but they need to understand that the potential danger of their decision is not limited to their household. People with certain allergies and/or weakened immune systems, pregnant women, the elderly and babies too young to be vaccinated are unable to protect themselves from a powerful virus like measles. Choosing to delay or neglecting to vaccinate children can harm other individuals who had no say in the matter. This is not the Middle Ages, and medicine is not the villain of this story. Public health cannot be managed by “alternative medicine,” and their misguided opinions shouldn’t have the power to expose other people to a disease that should have been eradicated decades ago.