Celebrating #WorldImmunizationWeek – Reversing the damage

by Jeremy D. Bailoo, PhD

TL:DR Get vaccinated, do not spread misinformation, educate and confront your fears!

Twenty five years ago, Andrew Wakefield published a series of fabricated studies, in the end claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism–and with a personal gain of (~674,000 USD). Since then, millions of dollars, which could otherwise have been spent understanding the causes and potential interventions for autism spectrum disorders, have instead been allocated to disentangling the truth.

The fallout from the false claim are still being felt today. Although approximately 20.4 million lives have been saved because of the measles vaccine alone, global eradication of vaccine preventable diseases can only be achieved by following prescribed immunization schedules. Consider, in the year 2000, 500,000 people died from measles — that number fell to 90,000 in 2016 because of vaccination campaigns. Without a vaccination program in place, it is estimated that 1.5 million people would die yearly from measles alone.

Estimated annual number of measles deaths with and without vaccination programs — worldwide, 2000–2016 Source: CDC

We have presented the evidence which shows that vaccinations DO NOT cause autism–and landmark judicial rulings, such as the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, have been made in support of this conclusion. Yet, “anti-vaxxer” campaigns continue and outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases continue to threaten our population, including our most vulnerable; the children and the elderly. Disease outbreaks also threaten animals–for example, non-human primates can contract measles from humans.

Fact: Researchers who work with non-human primates are required to have the measles vaccination or a titer showing proof of immunity.

So what can we do? The first thing you can do is to be judicious about what you read, consider the sources and vet the facts. The second thing you can do is share information only which you personally have fact-checked. The infographic below can help with this.

IFLA [CC BY 4.0]
Why does this matter? Well, with respect to “anti-vaccination” websites, American searches from google.com show that over 70% of all vaccination websites are against vaccines. This number is in stark contrast to other countries such as Canada where a similar search yields only 17%. So the type of information available to an American exploring whether vaccines are safe is massively biased. A research study in 2010 identified that 99% of those “anti-vaccination” websites contained information that was disingenuous. Despite the missive of mis-information that is out there, particularly in America, it is heartening to know that most Americans still support the use of vaccines and acknowledge that the harms outweigh the benefits. At the same time, only 55% of the American public trust medical scientists for full and accurate information on childhood vaccines. Some of this is a consequence of the fallout from the Wakefield scandal, but some blame must be allocated to the current political climate and sentiments expressed by misinformed celebrities.

So, just as we must do our part in terms of not spreading misinformation, equal emphasis must be placed on education of the public. It is our duty as members, as scientists, and of a larger public, to disseminate information that is vetted, and to separate our own beliefs from the facts. It is easy to be a willful participant in the noise that often surrounds us in the news and social media, but perhaps consider that the comforts of the world you live in are in part a consequence of living in vaccine-preventable disease free state. It was not so long ago (1950) that the lack of a polio vaccine led to debilitating developmental defects in our population.

Photo showing polio patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California in 1953. Source.

Finally confront your fears–and it is reasonable to have such fear–but they must be balanced with facts and separated from anecdotes and belief. The video is a nice example of how you can do so.

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