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‘Anti-vaxer’ movement contests studies touting benefits of early inoculations

Cover Design by Andrew Nunez (156267)
Cover Design by Andrew Nunez

The anti-vaccination movement (“anti-vaxers”) may be considered as a two-pronged campaign. One prong denies a casual connection between vaccines and the eradication of diseases like smallpox, polio, measles and rubella, while the other prong believes vaccines—particularly the MMR shot for mumps-measles-rubella—are a direct cause of autism.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that fewer youngsters worldwide are dying of childhood diseases now than at any time in history. Thirty -five years ago, only 20 percent of children worldwide had proper vaccinations. The latest WHO statistics indicate that 80 percent of the world’s children are reportedly vaccinated against deadly diseases such as polio and measles. The WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have each reported that immunization can be credited with saving “… approximately 9 million lives each year” and that another 16 million deaths could be prevented each year, if effective inoculations could be deployed against all potentially  vaccine-preventable diseases.

Old diseases making a comeback

Millions of children in continents like Africa and South America still do not have access to life-preserving medicine and continue to perish at alarming rates. Since the “anti-vaxer” movement began a few years ago, a nagging question remains within the public discourse: “How do Americans justify not vaccinating their children?” It’s not just America. In England and Wales, according to the WHO, measles cases increased 36 percent in 2008; this disease was once believed to be preventable, but such cases have reportedly doubled in the United States over the past seven years.

Vaccinations are not 100-percent guaranteed to prevent a disease in everyone who is vaccinated. The Institute of Child Health said in 2010 that after one dose of MMR approximately 90 to 95 percent of children are reportedly protected against measles, more than 95 percent against rubella and anywhere from 85 to 90 percent against mumps. After two doses, almost 100 percent of people will reportedly be protected against all three diseases. Experts say that because these diseases are so infectious, it is necessary to have very high dose levels of immunity in the population to control diseases. Both health organizations say that it is only possible to do this if children receive two doses of the vaccine. For this reason, experts in almost all developed nations recommend two doses of the vaccine.

This is where the anti-vaccine movement differs from expert medical advice. Opponents of the movement often contend that the controversy is merely an unexpected consequence of “better living through chemistry,” considering that the aforementioned diseases have become more rare after the vaccine was introduced decades ago.

Consequently, there is an entire generation of persons who have never had direct experience with these fatal diseases only because modern science has developed a way to help prevent them.

Activists press Congress

The “anti-vaxers” believe otherwise. Robert Kennedy Jr. has spoken for several years against what are widely believed to be “unnecessary” vaccinations. Last month he told Newsmax Health that “money” is the reason that Congress is delaying a hearing on accusations that the CDC hid a link between the MMR shot and autism.

“The pharmaceutical industry is a trillion-dollar industry,” Kennedy said. “There are other trillion dollar industries, but not one that spends as much on Congress.” Kennedy said he is not “anti-vaccine,” but believes it is up to parents to protect their children from the possible consequences of being vaccinated with shots containing mercury. Kennedy said he has long been an opponent of childhood vaccination formulations that contain mercury. “The CDC scheduled meetings to try to destroy the documents that demonstrated children were getting autism from the vaccine by literally dumping them in a trash can.”

Kennedy cited an admission by Dr. William Thompson, a senior epidemiologist at the CDC, who said the organization hid data that showed giving a child the vaccine before the age of 36 months increased the risk of autism by 69 percent. Giving it to an African American child, he said citing Thompson’s report, increased the risk of autism by 240 percent.

The “anti-vaxer” adherents are said to be a stubborn group. The journal Pediatrics  in 2014 conducted a study that presented four different scientifically proven arguments that vaccinations are safe, but some anti-vaccination parents seemed even less inclined to inoculate their kids with the MMR shot after that. Almost 1,800 parents of young children participated in the survey, which also presented four video messages touting the benefits of vaccinations. The first message, “Disease Risk,” detailed the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella. Then, the “Danger Narrative” message told the story of a woman whose son contracted measles from another child and developed a 106-degree fever. (According to WebMD, high temperature in young children could lead to seizures). The third message was “Disease Images” and showed disturbing pictures of infected children. The last message was “Autism Correction” which provided heavy scientific evidence that attempted to disprove the link between vaccinations and autism.

Medical data not convincing

None of the messages swayed the majority of participants. The researchers found that none of the four messages significantly increased rates of [intended] vaccinations (they only measured whether parents intended to vaccinate, not whether they actually did agree to the shots). Some of the images even provoked an anti-vaccination backlash. The videos “Disease Narrative” and “Disease Images” were said to have increased the misconception that vaccinations will have negative side effects among 6 percent of the participants; looking at the images of sick children actually increased the subjects’ perception that vaccines cause autism.

“We should never overestimate how effective facts and evidence are in convincing people to accept a claim and change their behavior,” said Dr. Brendan Nyhan, who authored the study. “Throwing facts and evidence at them isn’t likely to be the most effective approach.” Nyhan said he believed the responses by the participants resulted because when they saw children in distress, they became preoccupied with other dangers their child could encounter–such as an adverse reaction to a vaccination.

“People think, ‘what are they trying to convince me of?’” Nyhan explained. “The ‘don’t-worry-everything-is-safe’ approach is not often effective, because some parents believe ‘why are they trying so hard to reassure me that everything is safe?’”

The biggest worry within the anti-vaxer community is because vaccinations immunize by injecting of a killed or weakened organism of the disease. Their opinions range from mild opposition to outright boycott of vaccines. Those who oppose the (“anti-vaxers”) fear a catastrophic outbreak among children exposed to just one or two kids who are not inoculated against potentially deadly diseases. And they cite statistics from leading health-monitoring organizations: 15 years ago, measles were said to be eliminated in the United States (no continuous transmission for more than 12 months) because of vaccines. Globally, polio has decreased by 99 percent.

Link between MMR shot and autism?

Since the advent of the anti-vaxer movement, there have been countless studies conducted nationwide and in foreign lands which both tout the benefits of vaccinating children, and have attempted to counter misinformation about the benefits of inoculations. Jeffrey Gerber and Paul Offit of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wrote an article last year examining the so-called “link” between the MMR shot (and the preservative thimerosal found in some vaccines) and the onset of autism. Here is a portion of their conclusion:

“Twenty epidemiological studies have shown that neither thimerosal nor MMR vaccine cause autism. These studies, in concert with the biological implausibility that vaccines overwhelm a child’s immune system, have effectively dismissed the notion that vaccines cause autism.”

In Los Angeles County, wealthy parents are said to be at the forefront of the anti-vaxer movement. Famous names such as Kennedy, model Jenny McCarthy, actor Jim Carrey, journalist Katie Couric and talk show host Bill Maher have given high-profile support to the anti-vaxer movement. In California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law beginning July 1, 2016 stipulating that parents of school-age children can opt to skip vaccinations only if they write a letter detailing their personal or religious objections. In 2012, the state passed a law requiring parents who opt out to sign a document that verifies they understand the benefits of vaccines. In September 2013, the CDC determined that 82 percent of the measles cases it saw nationwide involved unvaccinated people; 9 percent of these persons didn’t know their vaccination status.

The California Department of Public Health reported in 2013 that 16,000 children entered kindergarten without being vaccinated because of their parents’ personal beliefs—that figure is 15 percent more than the previous year. The Los Angeles Times conducted an in-depth study two years ago on childhood inoculation rates, and reported that about 950 schools statewide have vaccination exemption rates of 8 percent or more. This is reportedly the “cut off” line at which a school loses what is known as “herd immunity” in which the more children are vaccinated, the less the chance of spreading a disease. More than 150 of these schools are in Los Angeles County and virtually all of them are in census tracts where incomes are 60 percent above the county median of wealth.

Vaccinations still best bet against tragedy

Most of the L.A. County parents that invoke the exemption live along the coast, and about 80 percent of these households have enrolled their children in private schools. About 25 percent of private-school kindergartners were in schools with a vaccination exemption rate below the heard safety level, compared to 10 percent in 2007. Vaccinations at public schools reportedly jumped from 5 to 7 percent during the same period.

Vaccinations can play a significant role in protecting people from common diseases, and those health maladies once believed to have been eradicated via modern medicine. Last week, California health officials began investigating how a child from Los Angeles County contracted bubonic plague after visiting Stanislaus National Forest and going camping at Crane Flat Campground in Yosemite National Park in mid-July. The child is reportedly recovering. Officials at the state health department said the disease is endemic to California and is found throughout the state except in the Central Valley and desert regions. You generally contract plague through the bite of an infected flea which, itself, contracted it from a wild animal such as a squirrel, chipmunk, and other rodents.

Contracting plague is rare today. There have been only 42 reported cases in California—nine of which were fatal—during the past 45 years. And there is a vaccine (a live bacteria) against Yersinia pestis (commonly known as bubonic plague) which has been widely administered in developed nations for the past 125 years.