Though most people on Twitter would know me primarily as a tweeter of atheism, infectious disease and human health from the perspective of basic science is a major passion of mine. Atheism is a hobby, and nothing more- but medicine and science are my life.
Being in a health-related field, I’ve learned a lot about vaccinology, and being on Facebook (until 6 months ago), I’ve run across a lot of people who challenge vaccinology in essentially every way.
Being on Twitter, I’ve found more of the same- people who have latched onto this bizarre cult movement of anti-vaccination which has been bred by misinformation and perpetuated by fear. I’ve seen many people in my Twitter timeline discuss vaccination and the anti-vax movement with many people, and thought it might be time to clear up some of the inaccuracies and downright falsehoods that seem to be plaguing our anti-vax friends.
First, let’s briefly consider how vaccines work.
The basic structure of the vaccine doesn’t really matter, as the goal remains essentially the same- expose your immune system to a piece of a potentially harmful pathogen in order to prepare it for the real thing. When your immune system sees a vaccine, it is able to create a “memory” response, which basically means the next time it sees that particular infection, it will recognize it, and be able to coordinate a fast, effective response which will clear the infection before it can infect you or cause you harm.
The very first vaccine ever developed was against smallpox in the late 1700’s, by Dr. Edward Jenner. Jenner noticed that milk maids who became infected with cowpox, the much milder “cousin” of the very deadly smallpox, did not contract smallpox. He had a theory that the cowpox infection was somehow protecting them from smallpox. To test this (much to the chagrin of ethicists everywhere), he infected a young boy with cowpox, and upon recovery, attempted to infect him with smallpox, but the boy was immune and did not become infected. This is a classic example of how vaccination works.
Working from his early example, medical professionals have developed a plethora of human vaccines that have greatly reduced the suffering and death from infectious diseases. Polio has nearly been eradicated due to Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine. Cholera, the plague, measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid… dozens of diseases are now preventable due to the creation of effective vaccines. We see proof of this every day- how many people do you know who have been crippled by polio?
So why, then, is there this unrest amongst parents within our communities, who suddenly seem skeptical, or even fearful, of the very vaccines that prevented them from a deadly polio infection?
In 1998, a paper was published in the very reputable journal Lancet, by Dr. Andrew Wakefield et al, which suggested there was a link between the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, rubella), and a new syndrome which was a combination of a kind of autism and a bowel disease. In time, several other studies were done to show that this link did not exist, and eventually the paper was retracted and Dr. Wakefield stripped of his medical license. It eventually came out that the methodology used in this paper was completely inappropriate, many of the results exaggerated or completely falsified, and that Wakefield had several monetary conflicts of interest which may have driven this falsification of data. For example:
– The study contained only 12 children, some of whom previously had symptoms of bowel disease or neurological impairment
– The results were determined based on anecdotal evidence from parents (many of whom came out later disputing that they’d actually said what Wakefield claimed, or that their children did not possess the symptoms he claimed they did)
– Many invasive procedures such as colonoscopies and lumbar punctures were done, WITHOUT ethical approval (that’s a big no-no, folks)
Most damning of all is that Wakefield had a monetary conflict of interest- he was involved in trying to license a single measles vaccine- by discrediting the MMR vaccine, the likelihood of his vaccine being more widely used would have improved dramatically. Furthermore, it eventually came out that Wakefield had personally pocketed ~$400,000 from a group who was filing a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine- AND that several of the 12 trial participants had been recruited through the lawyer filing this suit. This type of conflict of interest is completely unacceptable in the field of medicine, and was likely a driving factor for why Wakefield presented the false data.
Despite the eventual retraction of this paper, the damage had been done. The media attention garnered by this case could not be dampened even when several studies proved that there was no link. Parents in the UK in particular stopped vaccinating their children, which led to outbreaks of measles, including fatalities. Worse yet, several years after the paper was retracted and the link dissolved, we are STILL feeling the effects, thanks to celebrities like Jenny McCarthy getting on board and perpetuating the myth to the media.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel for the parents who have to see their children dealing with autism, and I can’t imagine the guilt they suffer in this belief that a vaccine they gave them somehow caused it. But the simple fact of the matter is that there is absolutely no link between autism and vaccination of any kind. This has been shown time and time again, but for some reason the myth has penetrated our society so hard that now we just can’t shake it.