Fear vs. Fact: The Modern Anti-Vaccination Movement

by Brendan Pease

“It just seemed like it was impossible,” said Kathryn Riffenburg, a resident of nearby Chicopee, Massachusetts. “We went from sitting in the hospital day by day, waiting for him to get better for almost two weeks, to doctors telling us we had a 50/50 chance he was going to make it.” Two years ago, “he” was Brady Riffenburg — Kathryn’s newborn son who, at the beginning of his 9-week life, was born healthy. But soon after birth, Brady contracted whooping cough, a disease named after the uncontrollable coughing fits it gives those afflicted with the disease, preventing them from breathing. Complications are even more serious, ranging from brain swelling to seizures. When Brady succumbed to the disease, the disease caused swelling so severe that he was unrecognizable; his body was so ravaged by the disease that Kathryn chose to have a closed casket funeral (1).

Yet Brady’s tragic death could have been easily prevented. In fact, a vaccine that Kathryn could have gotten during pregnancy would likely have saved Brady’s life. Unfortunately, what happened to the Riffenburgs is becoming increasingly more common today, as vaccine rates for preventable diseases are dropping. For example, new measles cases in the United States tripled in 2013, with outbreaks in eight distinct communities (2). California had 14,921 kindergartners this year who were not vaccinated because of their parents’ beliefs, the highest number of any state. From January to March this year, there were 49 reported cases of measles in California; over the same time period in 2013, there were four (1). Estimates on preventable deaths caused by low vaccination rates vary greatly, but many hover at around 1,000 per year, a rate that most agree is currently increasing (3). As more and more Americans forego vaccinating their children, is there any scientific basis to the claims that vaccines are harmful?

Vaccines: An Overview

In short, no. Vaccines work in a simple and elegant way. When humans get sick, our immune systems recognize the bacteria or viruses causing the disease and produce proteins called antibodies. In addition to helping the immune system kill the foreign invaders, antibodies remain in our blood and will recognize and quickly destroy foreign invaders before they have a chance to invade further and cause sickness. The role of a vaccine is to introduce a weakened or dead pathogen so that our immune system can create antibodies without getting sick in the first place. Getting vaccinated and getting sick produce the same antibodies for each disease; vaccines simply prevent us from having to experience the disease in the first place. This is especially important for diseases with high mortality that our bodies cannot combat effectively if we do not already have immunity to them. If enough people within a population get vaccinated, they are considered to have “herd immunity,” because the disease cannot spread if so many people are immune (4).

Contrary to popular belief, vaccines have been around far longer than most of modern medicine. According to HistoryOfVaccines.org, a project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, there is evidence of smallpox inoculation occurring as early as 1000 CE in China. However, vaccines did not become prevalent until Edward Jenners first used cowpox material to confer smallpox immunity in 1796. Two centuries later, small pox was eradicated in the 1970s using the same scientific principle, albeit with some minor modifications. The number of vaccines burgeoned in the early and mid-1900s as biologists gained more knowledge about the DNA structure and various microbiological mechanisms (5). Today, the CDC recommends that children get vaccines to cover 16 different diseases, from Hepatitis A to Tetanus (4).

Although vaccines are overwhelmingly helpful for human health, they are not entirely without their flaws. As the CDC states on their website, “Like any medication, vaccines, can cause side effects. The most common side effects are mild. On the other hand, many vaccine-preventable disease symptoms can be serious, or even deadly.” (4). However, these side effects are so rare that they are vastly outweighed by their benefits to public health. These risks are also mitigated by guidelines set by the CDC that dictate who should not get vaccinated — namely, those who are on immunosuppressive drugs, are not feeling well, or are allergic to ingredients of the vaccine (4). Vaccines are also remarkably safer than they were 50 years ago, with adverse reactions and side effects becoming increasingly rare (2). In summation, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the rare drawbacks.

The Anti-Vaccination Movement

Opposition to vaccines is nothing new; there are records of people harassing smallpox inoculators in the 1700s (5). However, the modern anti-vaccination movement has its origins in a study published in The Lancet, a highly influential peer-reviewed medical journal, in 1998. The study, “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children,” suggests a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Following a sample of 12 children, 11 of whom were boys, the study concluded that “onset of [autism] behavioral symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children, with measles infection in one child, and otitis media in another” (6). The study was widely criticized as being “filled with false and fraudulent data,” and was fully redacted in 2010 (2).

But once the study was published in the first place, the damage was already done. Vaccination rates plummeted, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, and have stayed lower ever since, as anti-vaccination activists continue to cite the infamous study. After over a decade of lower vaccination rates, the damage to human health is evident. For example, in 2010, there were nearly 10,000 cases of whooping cough in California alone, “causing the deaths of 10 infants under the age of 1 – the most in the state since 1947” (2). From 2007 to 2014, over 100,000 people have caught preventable illnesses that have widely-available vaccines (3). Decades of progress in vaccine research has been nullified by anti-vaccination advocacy based largely on a redacted scientific study.

So if the anti-vaccination movement does not have science behind it, how exactly does it spread? One factor behind the spread of the movement is that several celebrities have participated in anti-vaccine activism. These celebrities include a number of actors, including Rob Schneider, who campaigned against a bill in California that would have made it harder to get personal exemptions from vaccine requirements (7). Another infamous anti-vaccine activist is Jenny McCarthy, who co-hosted the View for one season and spread her anti-vaccine views through the show; she has since backpedaled on some of her views (8). Another reason that the movement is able to persuade parents is because it uses a lot of fear-mongering and scare tactics to frighten parents into not vaccinating their children. These tactics range from blatant fact denial and bad science to naming ingredients in vaccines that seem harmful and unnatural to those without a scientific background (9).

These scare tactics are apparent on VacTruth.com, a popular anti-vaccination website with over 58,000 likes on Facebook. The website was founded in 2009 by Jeffry Aufderheide, whose first son stopped reaching developmental milestones around the time he was vaccinated. One page of the website lists ingredients of vaccines such as “monkey kidney tissue” and “mouse brain,” taking advantage of the “ick” factor of animal brains and kidneys rather than discussing the science behind the ingredients. Package inserts—the pages of information listing possible rare side effects and ingredients that often come with vaccines—are viewed as evidence that vaccines are unsafe, despite the fact that all medications have similar warnings. Headlines under the News section include, “Boy Gets Diagnosed with Autism After 32 Shots,” “The CDC: A Truly Corrupt and Dangerous Organization,” and “The Scary Truth About the New York City Flu Mandate.” People who support vaccination are labeled “vaccine pushers,” and scientists and CDC workers are referred to as “liars” and “evil” (10). In essence, many anti-vaccination sites such as VacTruth.com gain followers through fear mongering rather than reason.

The Pro-Vaccination Response

 Although the anti-vaccination movement continues to grow, efforts to convince parents to vaccinate their children have also increased. Websites like historyofvaccines.org—that are run by physicians and seek to convince people that vaccines are safe and natural—have gained traction online. Other websites target those who are anti-vaccination and provide support for people who were once against vaccinating but whose views have changed. For instance, the website voicesforvaccines.org cites scientific studies that prove the efficacy of vaccines and has posts written by parents who used to be anti-vaccination. In her post “Leaving the Anti-Vaccine Movement,” Megan Sandlin addresses the intense backlash she got from friends when she became pro-vaccine, saying that she lost friends and was told that her daughters were going to get autism (9). Though the internet has allowed anti-vaccine communities to grow, it has also given rise to pro-vaccine websites and communities for newly pro-vaccine parents.

In addition, celebrities who oppose vaccination are commonly called out for their false and damaging beliefs and will occasionally face professional consequences. State Farm recently dropped an ad campaign in September that featured actor and anti-vaccination activist Rob Schneider (7). When it was announced that Jenny McCarthy, who re-popularized the claim that vaccines cause autism, would co-host the seventeenth season of The View, a pro-vaccination website with statistics on how many people have died from preventable illnesses was created at the domain JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com (3). Despite the fact that fewer parents are vaccinating their children, the vast majority of Americans thankfully continue to believe that vaccines help human health; thus, advocating against vaccines remains socially and politically unpopular.

Yet despite pro-vaccination efforts, vaccination rates are still decreasing. So what can be done to ensure that further outbreaks of diseases such as measles and rubella do not occur? From a policy standpoint, states could lower the number of vaccine exemptions they give. Currently, 19 states allow certain children to be exempt from vaccine requirements due to their parents’ beliefs (2). However, eliminating or reducing these exemptions could be viewed as excessive government intervention in medical care, potentially making these efforts politically unpopular. The simplest way to raise vaccination rates is to continue awareness campaigns so that anti-vaccination celebrity activists will lose their influence. At times, it can be difficult to argue and engage with people who ignore scientific consensus and use incendiary rhetoric; however, the most convincing pro-vaccination efforts have not stooped to ad hominem attacks. To raise vaccination rates, the scientific community must ultimately do what it does best: remain objective and offer recommendations based on well-tested facts.

Brendan Pease ’17 is a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator in Kirkland House.

Works Cited

  1. Alcinder, Y. “Anti-Vaccine Movement is Giving Diseases a 2nd life.” USA Today. (April, 2014).
  2. Pearl, R. “A Doctor’s Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement.” Forbes. (March, 2014).
  3. “Anti-Vaccine Body Count.” (Sept, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.jennymccarthybodycount.com/Anti-Vaccine_Body_Count/Home.html.
  4. “Vaccine Fact Sheet.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (May, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/fact-sheet-parents.html.
  5. “The History of Vaccines.” (2014). Retrieved from HistoryOfVaccines.org.
  6. Wakefield, A. et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular Hyperplasia, Non-specific Colitis, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder in Children. The Lancet 351, 637-641. (Feb., 1998).
  7. Blake, M. “State Farm dumps pitchman Rob Schneider over anti-vaccine views.” LA Times. (Sept, 2014).
  8. McCarthy, J. “The Gray Area on Vaccines.” Chicago Sun-Times. (April, 2014).
  9. Sandlin, M. “Leaving the Anti-vaccine Movement.” (2014). Retrieved from http://www.voicesforvaccines.org/leaving-the-anti-vaccine-movement/.
  10. “News.” (Oct, 2014). Retrieved from http://VacTruth.com/news/.

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