A Brief History of Anti-Vaccination Hysteria

Originally published in the Kelowna Courier, April 2011

by Blythe Nilson

The history of the anti-vaccination movement is a long and interesting one filled with scandals, lies and cover-ups. Sadly the result has been an unfounded fear of immunization that places unvaccinated children at risk of contracting some very nasty diseases. It all started in 1998 with the unscrupulous, and now disbarred, physician Andrew Wakefield. He falsified documents, lied to his colleagues and violated medical ethics to write a paper based on 12 faked cases of children who supposedly developed bowel disorders after being given the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine. Despite warning from reviewers it was published that year in the Lancet, a very prestigious medical journal. How he persuaded 12 physicians to sign as co-authors, and why the Lancet published the paper despite its obvious shortcomings is a mystery. The paper’s conclusion was that the measles portion of the MMR vaccine caused bowel disorders and autism. Wakefield, we now know, was keen to discredit the MMR vaccine in the UK so that he could sell his own patented vaccines there and make a lot of money. Ten of his co-authors withdrew their names in 2004, when the scandal came to light, and in February 2010 Wakefield and the last two authors were charged with malpractice. The Lancet fully retracted the paper and the British High Court charged him with, among other things “gravely abused the children under his care by unethically carrying out extensive invasive procedures”. Today it is crystal clear that there is absolutely no link between autism and vaccines.

A few years earlier, in 2007, the B-list actress Jenny McCarthy, who has a child with an autism-like syndrome, joined the voices denouncing vaccines, citing Wakefield’s work as a call to action. Her lack of medical education or qualifications was no barrier as she drew on her “mommy instinct” to diagnose her son and blame vaccines. She became the poster girl for the ant-vaccination movement, appearing on dozens of television shows and leading antivax rallies all over the US. It is widely believed that she shares in the responsibility for the vaccine-preventable deaths of almost 700 children since she became involved in the movement. The website was created to follow the tally but it now focuses on Ms. McCarthy’s latest attack on children’s’ health: the promotion of e-cigarettes. In the face of indisputable science and a turning tide of public opinion, she seems to have given up on the antivax movement.

Why do well-meaning, intelligent, educated people still believe this nonsense? Part, it’s because humans are hard-wired to trust anecdotes and emotion-filled stories told by friends, family and “authority figures”, a group that currently seems to include celebrities. Understanding statistics, science and evidence is not so easy. Many parents of children with autism, or any debilitating disease, naturally try and make sense of the unfairness of it all and search for someone or something to blame. Sensational TV and newspaper headlines repeatedly showcased these vaccine myths for years and most of the stories completely ignored or trivialized the science. As a result, misinformation spread widely and quickly. Even after Wakefield was completely discredited some people refused to admit that they had been mistaken or misled and continue to maintain antivax websites. Long-held or cherished ideas are hard to relinquish. Although it’s difficult to master, the most important thing in our skeptical bag of tricks is the ability to accept evidence that shows we are wrong. Admitting that you were wrong about something and then changing your mind is a hallmark of clear thinking and is tough to do.

Since humans are, by nature, incredibly biased and tend to see links and patterns where none really exist, advances in medicine were slow and difficult until the scientific method got of the ground a couple of hundred years ago. Science has greatly improved the practice of medicine, which had previously been more of an art. Our current good health and longevity is owed mostly to four basic things: hand-washing with soap, flush toilets, antibiotics and vaccines. Older readers will remember first-hand the devastation caused by diseases like polio, measles and whooping cough. It’s unforgivable that members of the anti-vaccine movement have caused the recurrence of some of these diseases, killing and injuring so many children who could have been protected. Science is not a belief system – it’s the remedy for it.

You may be amused to know that conspiracy theories about vaccines change over time and differ from country to country. In France some people think hepatitis vaccines cause MS; in Nigeria many believe that polio vaccines cause AIDS and in India some think all vaccines are a government plot to reduce the birth rate. The anti-vaccine culture in North America is so entrenched that they change their core message when they lose ground. After the measles vaccine proved safe their focus switched to thimerosal, which was removed from childhood vaccines in the US in 2001. The autism rate still didn’t change, so they switched to “toxins”. A transcendent moment of hypocrisy occurred when Ms. McCarthy condemned the act of “injecting a toxin into your child” on the Oprah Winfrey show, then praised the use of botox (one of the most potent neurotoxins on the planet) injections as a cosmetic aid. Currently the antivax crowd is focused on “too many too soon” but a large German study published in March 2011 shows that the only health differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated children is that the unvaccinated children got more vaccine-preventable diseases. What will they come up with next?

Remember to flex your skeptical muscle by admitting you are wrong when the evidence says so. Your head will feel much clearer.

Science Based Medicine on the issue:

An analysis of the German and other studies:

Image from: