Why is the Anti-vaccine Movement Gaining Momentum?

May 13, 2019

The problem with humans is that we tend to forget the really important bits of our history. Over the past few decades, scientists and doctors who have helped steer the effort to end certain infectious disease outbreaks have had cause to celebrate the pivotal role that vaccines have played in this fight.

Somewhere within the past two decades, though, people got used to the U.S. being free of such diseases as measles and polio and turned on vaccines. But with 764 verified cases of measles as of May 2019, it’s worth questioning how a country that eradicated this disease in 2000 is now facing an escalating measles crisis.

How did anti-vaccine theories begin, and why are anti-vaxxers making such a powerful resurgence?

A Closer Look at History

As prominent as they may seem today, anti-vaxxers only echo the efforts of former days in the 19th century when vaccines were developed to cure smallpox across the pond in England.

With early vaccination, people were infected with cowpox so their systems would develop the necessary immunity to withstand the much deadlier smallpox. This was known as variolation and was outlawed after further research developed a safer means of vaccination.

Everything was going well until the government decided to make vaccinations compulsory for infants, and, later, kids up to 14 years old. Fines were imposed on people who refused to comply, and the conflict escalated.

The primary grievance of the anti-vaccine movement back then was that the government shouldn’t intervene in the personal lives of its citizens, especially because the early vaccines were, in rare cases, as dangerous as the diseases they aimed to prevent. Some people (numbering in the hundreds) were dying in reaction to these vaccines.  And the vaccines didn’t always prevent the diseases that they were designed to ward off.

Prominent anti-vaccine scientists argued against the unnecessary deaths and complications that resulted from giving vaccines. But to give you some perspective on the matter, even though these vaccines weren’t perfect, they were still saving 400,000 lives per year.  Arguably, the benefits far outweighed the concerns.

Even at that, though, due to the controversy, the government conceded its stringent vaccination policy by the early 20th century, just as long as parents understood and accepted the dangers of not vaccinating their children.

Then vs. Now

Regardless of how pro-vaccination you are, you can’t deny that the original anti-vaxxers had some pretty valid points; their options were literally between paying fines or risking the lives of their children for vaccinations that might not work. Even though some of the anti-vax propaganda was solely meant to stoke fears, we’ll give people of that era a “gullibility hall pass” due to the limited information available and low literacy levels.

The same cannot be said about the movement today. Vaccines have become considerably safer.  Their risks are low, and their benefits are sky-high as they have proven to eradicate many diseases.  What’s more, literacy levels have gone up, and people have access to more academic resources on vaccinations to satisfy even the most erudite curiosity.

Bearing all this in mind, why is the anti-vaccine movement still a thing? Are there new valid concerns for the resurgence of today’s movement? Or is revolution entirely irrational and baseless? And given the recent measles outbreak, should the government reserve the right to overrule personal freedom when public safety is on the line?

The Factors Behind the Comeback

To gain a better understanding of the rising anti-vaccination fascination, let’s look at some of its main influencers:

Andrew Wakefield MMR scare – Wakefield is at the very heart of the modern anti-vax movement, having published a now debunked study showing the correlation between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an increased risk of autism.

For claims of spurious research findings, the doctor was prohibited from practicing medicine in the UK.  He moved to the U.S. where he has continued to generate campaigns supporting his theory.

Is there any truth to his claim? The experts say no. Since his unethical study of just 12 children (a small sample by anyone’s standard), there has been a raft of scientific research exploring the relationship between vaccines and autism (some studies including as many as 100,000 children). The results have been overwhelmingly negative.

The issue, though, is that most anti-vaxxers still read or listen to Wakefield’s debunked claims and grow nervous about vaccines.  One concern raised by Wakefield is that vaccines carry the potentially harmful ingredient of aluminum.  While it’s true that aluminum is used in vaccines as an adjuvant (a component that boosts immune response to the vaccination), it is regulated for safety and is incorporated only in very low doses.  In fact, the amount of aluminum found in vaccines is comparable to that found in a liter of infant formula.  Additionally, aluminum is found in the storage containers we use, in a number of common medicines, and in the food we eat.  Aluminum is not unique to vaccinations—it’s everywhere in our environment.

Wakefield continues to fuel conspiracy theories about his discredited paper and has been able to influence pockets of communities around him since he moved to the U.S.

Personal freedom – Many anti-vaxxers continue to see vaccinations as an encroachment on personal freedom.  They hold fast to the idea that government should not intrude into the personal lives of ordinary citizens. They want to make the right decisions about their kids’ health without interference.

As respected as this position is, vaccines only work through something called “herd immunity.” Measles will be eradicated only if all members of society come together to protect themselves. If disease spreads from an unvaccinated person, his or her personal freedom could come at a heavy cost.

Some state governments have made allowances for exemptions, but strictly require kids who go to school (instead of being home schooled) to be vaccinated.

Animal properties as vaccine ingredients – This is another contentious point in the vaccination debate.  Certain types of vaccines (including MMR) use eggs and pork gelatin as stabilizing agents. For those with allergies, this can be a valid concern.

Parents who plan on raising vegan kids also express concern at this. Note, however, that in most cases, there are egg- and pork-free variations of vaccines available.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The vaccination debate has entered the political arena as politicians use it to appeal to their voter base.  Rand Paul and Chris Christie lent their voices to this cause, and celebrities like Robert De Niro and Kat Von D continue to advocate for boycotting vaccines using pseudoscience, at best, to relay their positions.

None of these public figures has done more damage than the Commander in Chief of Anti-fact, President Trump. In 2016, the then presidential candidate met with Dr. Wakefield and even alleged during one of Wakefield’s rallies that one his friend’s children developed autism after being vaccinated. Naturally, there was no proof to support this narrative, but it’s not at all surprising that the U.S. is experiencing a measles outbreak under this administration.

Does the anti-vax movement have valid concerns? Sure. But as seen, more careful research would allay these concerns, and measles outbreaks would be a relic of history—not a 21st century problem.

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