No cure for anti-vaccine hysteria?

In 2014, the United States has seen the greatest number of measles cases since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000. The same trend can also be seen in many European countries. For that reason, the discussion about vaccination is back on the agenda and with it a debate about this public health issue, in which people seem to be making decisions based on their beliefs rather than facts. Many scientists have taken action and are trying to argue against the sceptics. The deniers’ beliefs lie mainly in a study which has been refuted many times. Nevertheless, the debate surrounding measles has intensified and has become a debate about politics rather than science, beliefs over facts.

The measles is back and it is safe to say that its resurgence is connected with the growing number of vaccine deniers. People did not update their vaccines, had never been vaccinated in the first place or did not have their children vaccinated with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. Measles is a highly communicable respiratory disease caused by a virus and spread through the air. Symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and a sore throat.

In 1998 a study by Andrew Wakefield was released in the U.K., stating that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. This was a starting point for the anti-vaccine movement and, to this day, Wakefield is a hero to those who believe in his now-retracted paper and the dangers of a mixed vaccine. Just recently, Wakefield responded to the current outbreak for the first time and argued that the reason for growing numbers of the disease is because the governments in the U.K. and the U.S. took the single vaccines off the market and parents reject the option of the mixed vaccine.

Anti-vaccination bumper sticker in USA. Picture: Jennifer P. Flickr

The medical community in large part does not agree with him. Several studies, for example in Finland and Denmark, have shown no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, health officials are worried that the hysteria in politics and media could scare even more people. Politicians certainly have their opinion, and do not hold them back in this debate. U.S. President Obama, Hillary Clinton and others have declared their strong support for vaccinating children against measles. Also, influential businesspeople like Melinda Gates have taken action. Gates promoted vaccination and explained the lengths people in Africa go to get a vaccine, simply because they have seen what measles deaths look like; something the Western world may have forgotten.

Nevertheless vaccine deniers and sceptics insist on their stance, despite vaccine supporters presenting facts, information refuting MMR and autism correlation, and informative clips on the Internet summarising the life-saving effects of vaccines. However, the group of anti-vaxxers is not as homogenous as one might think. On one hand, there is the group of deniers who argue that the chemicals in vaccine can cause cancer, autism or other diseases. On the other hand, political motivations lead to vaccinations being neglected. Some people take the standpoint that it is their own choice whether they let themselves or their children get vaccinated. In the U.S. it is the Republican Party which promotes this view. For example Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky, made a statement a few weeks ago that children are not owned by the state and that the decision to vaccinate should remain voluntary.

In contrast, medical experts and ethicists argue that the distrust of the state should not be a reason for the decision against a vaccination. Moreover, they reason that in a society like the U.S with access to the best medicine in the world, children should not die unnecessarily because they are not vaccinated. While some parents believe the decision against vaccination only harms their family, the contrary is the case. Their family decision-making actually puts a lot of other people at risk, especially pregnant women and children too young to be immunized. Also, the less children that get vaccinated the more the measles outbreak spreads.

Table over how measles spreads depending on vaccination rates, for the interactive version see previous link: . Picture: Stephen Curry, Flickr

The World Health Organization introduced a bulletin on the success of vaccinations which stated that “vaccination has greatly reduced the burden of infectious diseases. Only clean water, also considered to be a basic human right, performs better.” It can be seen paradoxically that the anti-vaccine movement thrives nowadays despite the undeniable success of vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that among children born during 1994 and 2013, vaccinations prevented 322m illnesses, 21m hospitalisations and 730,000 deaths.

Looking at the case of measles outbreak, society seems at a crucial point as there is a risk of throwing away years of medical advancements. France went from 40 cases in 2007 to more than 20,000 between 2008 and 2011. More than 500 cases since October 2014 in Berlin and the death of a toddler have even further fuelled the debate in Germany. England and Wales reported growing numbers as well, mainly due to a plummeting vaccination coverage, from 92% in 1996 down to 80% in 2003. Behind it all seems to be lurking something more ideological: a distrust of the state, its public authorities and politicians. When scientific disputes are politicised, facts seem to be neglected and the truth – and with it many people – suffers.


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