a, Science & Technology

Anti-vaccination platforms risk disease re-emergence

Over the past few years, there has been a massive cultural movement towards distrusting vaccinations. A Google search of “Vaccines are…” results in hits such as “Vaccines are bad,” “Vaccines are dangerous,” and “Vaccines are poison.” In fact, 20 per cent of Canadian websites and 70 per cent of American websites promote anti-vaccination platforms, according to a talk about vaccine wars by researcher Brian Wald.

The distrust in vaccines is largely attributed to a 1998 publication connecting the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) to autism. The research was conducted by former British surgeon Andrew Wakefield and published in the journal The Lancet. While further investigation indicated that no link between the two has ever been proved, it took 12 years for the paper to be discredited and removed from the journal. By that point, the public had already become suspicious as to the effects of vaccines.

Celebrities, too, play a factor in this trend. American actress Jenny McCarthy is well known for her anti-vaccination platform, claiming, alongside Wakefield, that vaccines led to her son’s autism. Despite a gaping lack of scientific evidence, McCarthy’s celebrity status gave her the means to promote this anti-vaccination movement, albeit with poor scientific practice.

Unfortunately, this fear of vaccination has led to a re-emergence of diseases once easily managed with immunization. There have been reported outbreaks of whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio  in the last year or so, in countries where these vaccines are readily available.

Eduardo L. Franco, Chair of the Department of Oncology and director of Cancer Epidemiology at McGill, is frustrated with today’s anti-vaccination lobbying. He explains that these myths are difficult to dispel, and are having a huge consequence not only on the public’s views of vaccinations, but also on the choices people make.

For instance, anti-vaccination groups have claimed that there is no proof that the HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer. Franco questions this particular argument, stating that research suggests otherwise.

“The vaccine has high efficacy in preventing pre-cancerous lesions,” he said.“That’s enough proof [to indicate that the vaccine works]. What would you do? Wait until the cancer happens? What if we had done the same with polio in the 1940s?”

Franco refers to the polio epidemic that ravaged North America during the 1900s. In 1916, polio outbreaks resulted in 27, 000 cases in the United States with over 6,000 deaths. The disease and associated panic spread until it reached a climax during the 1940s and ‘50s. In 1952 alone, there were over 57,000 reported cases leaving about 21,000 victims paralyzed.

In response to this epidemic, the Salk vaccine came to the rescue, followed by the oral polio vaccine that led to an abrupt decline in cases post immunization. By 1961, only 161 cases were reported in the United States.

While it is important that the public is making more informed decisions about what is being injected into their bodies, this decision should be based on legitimate statistics, as opposed to Google searches. One solution could be disclosing a risk-to-benefit ratio of vaccines to educate the public about the strength of vaccinations.

To date, researchers are questioning the validity of the anti-vaccination debate. In one of his lectures in MIMM 387 Franco debated why we should even question something that has proved to save millions of lives in the past. If more and more people opt out of vaccinations, once-eradicated diseases could continue to make a stronger appearance—an appearance that may not be protected by the vaccines we currently have available.

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