The history of vaccines developed to prevent infectious diseases is rife with claims that vaccines are dangerous. As pointed out by a recent editorial in the highly authoritative New England Journal of Medicine anti-vaccinationists have been around as long as vaccines.
A History of Anti-Vaccinationism
At the turn of the twentieth century, people revolted against smallpox vaccination, immunization rates fell dramatically, and outbreaks of the disease occurred throughout England. On the other hand, many fears were realized when the original injectable Salk vaccine for polio, developed in the early 1950’s, was contaminated by live polio virus (thereby resulting in sporadic cases of polio in children immunized) and by a more serious organism – monkey kidney cancer virus. Other cancers as well have been linked with the earliest polio vaccines, including certain brain tumors and mesothelioma, normally thought to be related only to inhalation of small toxic fibers such as asbestos.
In the 1970’s and ‘80’s disdain for the DPT shot arose and pertussis (whooping cough) made a comeback with the resultant death of several children. At the same time, litigation against vaccine manufacturers for real or imagined injuries became so widespread that the federal government had to indemnify the manufacturers against potential litigation by enacting the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Hysteria over the swine flu in the mid-1970’s led to the rapid preparation of a vaccine which caused the severe neurological disease Guillain-Barré Syndrome in hundreds of those vaccinated, so the story remains complicated. Since that time refinements in the way the flu shot is prepared has thus far resulted in avoidance of another outbreak of side effects.
Disproven Links between Vaccinations & Autism
Against this background, recent individuals evolved the furor about vaccines causing autism. In 1998, Dr. Wakefield published a study in The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal in England, saying in essence that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. Use of the MMR plummeted; outbreaks of measles occurred, and children occasionally died. Subsequently, investigators called Wakefield’s methodology and results into question and in early 2010 The Lancet issued a retraction of the paper. Later in the year Dr. Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine. The latest chapter in this drama was the recent publication by the British Medical Journal of an exposé on Wakefield’s work. He is now making the rounds of TV talk shows protesting his innocence and trying to recapture his integrity.
So what can consumers and parents conclude?
First of all, no biological product can be guaranteed to be 100% safe. However, we have come so far in the production of purified vaccines that the risk of people acquiring an accidental virus or tumor has been greatly reduced. It is unlikely that the Salk vaccine debacle will ever be replicated. The seasonal flu vaccine, although altered each year to reflect the then current strain of flu virus, is made in the same way each time so that subsequent systematic flaws in manufacture are very unlikely to occur.
If all children in a city are vaccinated except for the one child whose parent refuses to allow it, that child is safe because of “herd” immunity, when the immunity of the other children protects the unimmunized, because the virus cannot obtain a foothold. However, if many parents object, herd immunity falls and an epidemic can occur. The prior outbreaks of pertussis and measles, in eras when effective immunization was available, are testimony to the consequences of a fall in herd immunity.
Parents have an obligation to protect their children; public health officials, however, have an obligation to protect the public by ensuring that only safe vaccines get to market and that education overcomes ignorance and superstition.