Fake Science: the anti vaccine movement

With increasing measles outbreaks across the globe, is now the time for compulsory vaccination?

Over recent years, there have been worrying trends in the numbers of measles outbreaks. A disease that used to affect 9 out of 10 children below the age of 15 had, until the introduction of the measles vaccine, been a major problem globally. 

More than 90% of people who come into contact with measles contract the disease. And whilst a healthy child is unlikely to die, minor complications can lead to significant long-term health outcomes — including deafness and blindness. In addition, an unhealthy child, a weaker older person, or someone with a weak immune system are at an increased chance of death.

How many people need to be immunised to avoid measles outbreaks?

To keep measles at bay, the World Health Organization suggests that 95% of the global population needs to be immunised — known as the herd immunity threshold. In 2015, the UK achieved 95%, but vaccination rates are falling. According to an article in the New Statesman earlier this year, more than 1,100 cases of measles have been reported in 2018.

Childhood vaccine immunisation rates across the world are also declining. This is especially the case in countries with anti-establishment political movements. Romania, the United States and Italy have all seen significant drops in immunisation rates — though Italy has taken measures to halt this. Subsequently, the number of measles outbreaks has increased. Across the EU in 2017, there was a four-fold increase over the previous year, with 21,315 measles cases.

Most alarming of all is South Africa where almost a third of all children received measles immunisation — thanks in part to increased anti vaccine sentiment. Worldwide, the immunisation rate for measles is plateauing at 85% — 10% behind where we need to be.  

So why is the positive trend towards blanket immunity slowing, and in some cases reversing? The main driver is the rise of the anti vaccine movement, known as “anti vaxxers.” 

Driven by a lack of trust, and an increase in suspicion of the establishment — particularly scientists working for big pharmaceutical companies — it is not just a movement that is being driven by fake science, it is one that could potentially reverse all of the positive steps made over the past 50 years. 

Ultimately, the movement is a danger to public health. The more people who go unvaccinated, the more opportunities for measles to rear its ugly head.

The history of the anti vaccination movement 

Where do doubts about the efficacy of the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination come from? It is generally attributed to one man — disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield. In 1998 he published a paper that posed a link between MMR vaccinations and autism. 

The science has now been debunked. Andrew Wakefield has also been expelled from the science community in the UK. Despite this, the association between autism and the MMR jab still lives on in the anti vaxxers movement. In the US, Wakefield himself has seen a resurgence of popularity — especially in Texas, where he now lives. Though this is a significant contributor to anti vaxxers sentiment, the false link between the MMR vaccine and autism isn’t the only issue.

A major problem for measles is that anti vaccine campaigns hold the same associations as the liberal movements against GM products. The vaccine controversy is built around the assumption that injecting children with a disease — however small — is harmful for a child’s health. But the content produced by the anti vaxxers is built on assumptions and fake science. 

The basic science behind MMR

Vaccines work by getting our bodies to recognise a virus or bacteria without inflicting harm. The injection that enters our body is a weakened form of the virus, priming our immune systems for when we come into contact with the real thing. 

Part of the reason why parents choose not to vaccinate their children is that they can’t fathom a time when measles was prevalent in society. Though there have been media reports around the increase in preventable diseases like measles, mumps, and whooping cough, we still don’t see the major effects on society. 

If you don’t see the disease affecting people you know, it’s hard to understand the impact of a world without the MMR jab. Prior to 1968 when the first measles vaccination was introduced in the UK, over 400,000 people contracted measles. By 1988 when the MMR jab was introduced, this number had fallen below 100,000. Today, even with the rise of anti vaxxers sentiment in some circles, the number is 1,100. 

Vaccinations work. The potential impact of turning our backs on measles vaccinations could be lethal. Anti-vaxxers sentiment has the potential to spread disease.

Not understanding the potential impact of not immunising children against measles is one of the reasons which has led a large number of parents to refuse to vaccinate their children against vaccine preventable diseases. But we can’t wait for new, potentially lethal outbreaks before we address the issue. More needs to be done now to prevent outbreaks happening in the first place.

What are the solutions?

One of the biggest issues is trying to convince parents that the MMR vaccine is safe. If their doubt is built on a lack of trust for establishment science, simply giving parents the bare facts might not have the required impact. 

The science community know the risks, but if parents aren’t willing to listen to evidence, how can we stop the alarming rise of people choosing to not vaccinate their children? And how can we prevent the inevitable increase in outbreaks that follow?

The most obvious suggestion is to introduce compulsory vaccination. In France and Italy, childhood vaccines are now compulsory on the back of increasing anti vaxxers sentiment. In the UK, however, they are not. 

If the fake science begins to take hold in the public consciousness, it may be the only option. When the vaccinations were first introduced back in the 60s, we had the chance to eradicate measles for good. To make it happen today, compulsory vaccination may be the only answer.

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