Anti-Vaccination: Where It Comes From and Why It Has to Go

Zack Fogarty

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For a long time humanity has fought in an ebb and flow style against different sicknesses, from the worst of the black plague to the simple common cold. But, to escape this cycle and ensure humanities’ safety against epidemic illnesses we developed different kinds of medicine, one of the most successful kinds, being the vaccine. The vaccine dates a long way back to the Song dynasty of China. Back then, people didn’t really understand exactly why it worked. In the 1700’s the vaccine treatment was introduced to parts of Europe; it was met with majority acceptance, but there was a small group that resisted the induction of the vaccine, which makes sense. Back then, vaccines weren’t as advanced and it wasn’t that uncommon for a vaccination to lead to a poor outcome, being individual sickness or spreading of the virus. Nowadays, vaccines are successful 99.9% of the time, and 90% of the US population is fully vaccinated. But if modern vaccines work nearly perfectly, why isn’t 100% of the population vaccinated. Why is the anti-vaccine movement still holding any ground?

The anti-vaccine movement initially started as a religious based resistance, tracing back to 1772, from a speech made by a reverend Edmund Massey. He declared that vaccines were “diabolical operations”; He believed God created sicknesses to exact his will, so fighting against sickness is just as bad as disobeying God. But as medicine advanced and the heavy influence of christian values lessened with the Enlightenment, the anti vaccine movement became a political movement just as well as a religious one. In the mid-19th century, British government thought that vaccines were a wonderful, life saving tool, so to protect its citizens, Parliament created laws that made vaccination mandatory. Anti vaccine activists labeled this legislation as an infringement on the civil liberties of the British people and pushed back with great effort. This push eventually led to the passage of a law in 1898 that removed the repercussions for not getting vaccinated.

A lot of the anti vaccine movement’s sentiment is spread through propaganda and skewed studies, the vast majority of which are totally fabricated. For example, during a slight outbreak of pertussis in Britain in the 1970s, a study was released that linked the pertussis vaccine to 36 negative neurological reactions. This single report led to a big decrease in vaccine uptake, reducing the amount of people vaccinated against pertussis from 81% to 31%. This drop gave way to a huge pertussis outbreak in Britain. Another, more recent, piece of evidence linking vaccines to autism was released by Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor. As soon as his data was released, many doctors rushed to test his conclusion and found no connection between vaccination to autism. It turned out that Wakefield had taken money from litigants against vaccine producers, so Wakefield was marked off as a doctor and stripped of his title. The fact that anti vaccine supporters would pay a doctor to fabricate data shows not just their tenacity but also their propagandic nature.

The use of propaganda in the anti vaccine movement has very far reaching effects, especially when the message is doctor approved. Parents will be hesitant to vaccinate their families if they let the nonexistent link between vaccinations and autism get into their mind. Even after Wakefield was debunked, the percentage of parents that vaccinate their children in the US dropped by 2-3% for several years, and it was worse in other places like Ireland where vaccine rates dropped twice as much.

These numbers don’t just mean that more people will get sick. Vaccines save the government a lot of money every year, on the local and national level. To contain the average measles outbreak can cost nearly 10,000 dollars in a single day, and the average outbreak lasts 18 days. The Vaccines for Children program, brought into law in 1994, provides free vaccines for children who could otherwise not afford them. Not only has this program saved countless lives, but it has also saved over 1 trillion dollars in total costs.

In recent years, one would think that anti vaccine messages would be squashed by the expanding base of medical knowledge on the internet; however, the internet has become a pretty effective tool for spreading propaganda. On Youtube, one third of all videos concerning vaccination are opposed to the immunization process, and it turns out that the anti vaccine videos, on average, had higher views and ratings than pro vaccine videos. An analysis of Google’s anti vaccine population took a sample of 100 random websites that talked about vaccines and found that 43 of them were degrading the reputation of vaccines. Many of these websites also used the guise of promoting “healthy vaccines” rather than being anti vaccine altogether. This makes the website particularly appealing to parents looking for the best way to protect their kids, but it also fills their heads with misinformation. This just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet, a lesson that should have been assumed from the beginning. And when considering medical advice, the word of a certified doctor, with evidence based studies, should always come first.

Though it’s reasoning has changed, the religious argument against vaccination is very much still alive. Rather than being about God’s role in bringing forth disease, the argument is now based on more secular values. For example, groups of Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Hindus and Protestants avoid the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) because it was originally derived using fetal tissue from abortions and is not kosher, since it contains a porcine gelatin to help store it.

While rejecting vaccination is acceptable for personal reasons, it becomes dangerous when a whole community refuses vaccination. Each virus has an immunity threshold and once that threshold is broken, the entire area is at risk of an outbreak. It is for this reason that the Italian government has implemented the Lorenzin Law. The Lorenzin Law requires children under six to get the vaccination for specific viruses including polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox. Any child between six and sixteen who attends school without these vaccinations puts his/her family at risk of a $500 fine. This could be seen as a form of oppression, as it was during the mid 1800’s; however, it keeps vaccinated children out of the way of harmful diseases and enforces the protection of would-be unvaccinated kids.

Trends in Measles Cases, 2010-2019

The United States is no exception to the anti-vaccination movement. Despite announcing measles as eliminated in 2000, in 2014-2015 there was a huge measles outbreak, estimated to have begun in Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The outbreak resulted in about 125 cases of measles. This led to the passing of Senate Bill 277 in California, which keeps religious and personal reasons from exempting people from vaccination.  However this legislation didn’t do much to solve the problem; in 2017 there was an outbreak in Minnesota where 75 people got sick, and in 2018 there were still over 370 cases of measles overall.

The current wave of anti vaccination supporters could be caused by any number of things, from a lack of education to a lack of trust in the government to a simple want for attention. It’s important to stay educated, and it’s important to stay in touch, but it’s even more important to keep your kids safe, and one of the best ways to do it is through vaccination, despite what anti vaccination propaganda might say.