Perhaps there is no better illustration of the confusion created around an issue of science than the campaign of misinformation and outright lies put forward by the anti-vaccination lobby. An outsider reading the literature and material available on the web might think that there is a legitimate debate about the efficacy of vaccines as well as serious concerns about side effects and contaminants. And it is disturbing that any internet search on the subject with preferentially brings up a phalanx of anti-vaccination websites.
The truth is that vaccines are incredibly safe and are responsible for the eradication and severe reductions in the incidence of debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases. As far as the science is concerned, there is no debate; vaccines are good! So what are some of the myths spread about vaccines and why are they being spread? Let’s take ‘the what’ first. Some people are still claiming that there is a link between vaccinations and autism. This sprung from a research paper published in The Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield where he followed 12 children who displayed features of autism after they had been vaccinated. But subsequent work by many laboratories around the world failed to either show a link between the administration of vaccines and the development of autism or provide a viable mechanism by which a vaccination could cause autism. It was later revealed that Wakefield had failed to declare that some of his funding came from anti-vaccine litigants and his paper was withdrawn. So, despite an exhaustive effort to identify any link between vaccines and autism, there is no evidence to support that proposition and the original paper has been discredited. But, as recently as last week, I found that very claim still being promoted on a number of anti-vaccination websites. This is clearly a case of running with an argument despite the evidence. It has been claimed that vaccines are contaminated with mercury. Well yes, once upon a time, some vaccines did contain the organomercury compound Thiomersal in tiny amounts. But in 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics asked for it to be removed from vaccine manufacture and this rapidly caught on worldwide. Today there are no vaccines available in Australia with Thiomersal in them and there hasn’t been for over a decade. This is despite the original total dose of mercury in the vaccines being much less than that in a can of tuna. It was a precautionary measure with no recorded ill effects in the first place. You’d think that would be the end of it. Not a bit of it! Again, a quick search of the internet reveals a number of anti-vaccination sites claiming that mercury is still present in some vaccines. Not content with promoting claims with no scientific backing, anti-vaccine proponents also peddle dangerous ideas as supposed harmless solutions to menacing diseases. Thus anti-vaxers describe Whooping Cough or Pertussis as a bad cough and nothing to worry about. In fact it is a killer, particularly of newborn babies and the very young. In China it’s known as the Hundred Day Cough and in adults it can leave victims with broken ribs, burst blood vessels in the eyes and loss of voice for weeks on end. Worldwide it is estimated that there are 48.5 million cases of Whooping Cough each year resulting in nearly 295,000 deaths. In Australia, vaccinations have seen Whooping Cough reports drop dramatically, but there were still 34,793 reported cases in 2010. Measles has been described by anti-vaxers as mostly harmless and they recommend that kids should be exposed to the disease early so that they can build up their own immunity. They even produced a children’s book, released earlier this year, trying to spread that strange message. In fact, measles can be a fatal disease that often leaves the unprotected victim disfigured for life. In underdeveloped countries more than one in four people with measles will die from it. Thanks to vaccines, measles has almost been eradicated in Australia from almost 5000 cases reported in 1994 to just a handful of reports in 2010 and today measles deaths are unheard of here. So that’s what’s being said by the anti-vaxers (or part of the litany of their misplaced rhetoric) so now the question is why? What is the motive for spreading false information so brazenly and on such a broad scale? On this I am mostly stumped for a rational explanation. There is a legitimate concern for our kids. No one wants to see any harm come to them, particularly if we are unwittingly inflicting that harm. But, with vaccinations, this is clearly not the case. Overseas in some countries conspiracy theories surrounding vaccination workers have resulted in the killings of volunteers. While it’s not that bad here there are still no end of conspiracy theories and fear of government controls linked to the anti-vaccination movement. Not all but most anti-vaccination groups I’m aware of, exhibit an almost paranoid fear of state control of our health or the perpetration of Big Pharma selling dangerous products with only the profit motive in their sites. I simply don’t want to go there. I would rather draw the focus of the discussion back to the fundamental questions of do vaccines work and do they cause undesirable or harmful side effects? The answers are clear. Vaccines have probably made the greatest contribution to our healthy society through the reduction and, in some cases, eradication of a variety of diseases. A well organised vaccination campaign in India wiped out the scourge of polio in less than five years. And, despite exhaustive testing and research into identifying any nasty dark side of vaccines, only extremely rare cases of side effects causing serious harm have been recorded. Certainly the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the costs by a huge factor. To argue the contrary is to deny the evidence and dismiss the reality. And when the consequences of such arguments are weighed in the health and lives of our children, then that is a very dangerous argument to make. Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus