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Is vaccination paranoia endangering your kids?

A fall in public trust in the effectiveness of vaccines caused a measles outbreak in New York of 288 cases, why have some people chosen to abandon immunity?

Image courtesy of Pan American Health Organisation

Vaccination is one of the most important medical developments of the modern era, it is estimated to save 2-3 million lives every year worldwide and billions of dollars in medical bills. However there are some who believe vaccines can have unexpected and damaging side effects and even cause autism. Some of these “anti-vaxers” occupy influential positions in the media and have caused the immunisation rate to drop and normally preventable diseases such as measles to make a comeback.

Outbreaks are occurring in middle class communities of New York and California, reducing the crucial herd immunity that protects vulnerable individuals who are not yet immune. In May 2014 alone, 288 cases were reported where previously it was thought that it had been nearly eradicated. There have been previous bouts of vaccination scepticism, most notable in the UK in 1998, primarily caused by the controversy surrounding a study by Andrew Wakefield, which linked the MMR jab administered in a baby’s first two years to autism, even though this has subsequently been proved false by a succession of studies and has since been retracted by both the journal and the author responsible discredited as it is believed he changed and misreported his results to make money from autism test kits.

Image courtesy of DFID

In the UK at least, this seems to have settled the argument, despite this the damage was done, a drop in vaccinations in 1998/99 resulted in Measles outbreaks in Swansea last year, where over 1,200 cases were reported. In the US however the debate has shifted to an attack on all vaccines, questioning their efficacy and safety.

One of the most vocal anti-vaccination activists is television presenter and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, who believes that the injections her son Evan received around the age of 18 months caused the onset of autism. She mainly targets the ingredients such as Aluminium and Thimerosal, which contains Mercury, these are preservatives and points to the simultaneous increase in the cases of autism diagnosis with the rise in the number of vaccination. However, correlation does not imply cause and the increase in autism diagnoses are likely to be as a result of doctors being more aware of the condition, but McCarthy has created an atmosphere that suggests there is room for doubt and debate. The reality is that vaccines are subjected to the highest level of testing than any other medicine and potential side effects are clearly stated.

Another perception, especially among middle classes is that these diseases are only caught by sick and poor people and their children are unlikely ever to come into contact with them and when they do, having the disease is just as good a way to make children immune. This is not true; for example around the world measles infects 20 million people and kills 122,000 and complications for many others. Certain policymakers believe that children that are unvaccinated deliberately should be prohibited from attending school due to the risk of spreading infection and that religious exemption should also only go so far to protect the rest of the population.

Image courtesy of Blake Patterson

This kind of debate is typical of how science is poorly portrayed in the media, when a debate on a subject such as this is shown any radio or TV show it has to be between two people for the clarity of each sides’ arguments, this may leave the viewer with the feeling that the right answer is somewhere in the middle, this belies the actual consensus on many of these issues such as vaccination or climate change where 97% of scientists agree, to get a sense of how the debate would actually take place you would need to do what John Oliver did on his comedy show and get 97 scientists arguing opposing 3 against.

Where you could argue for the need for change is in the method of communication, recent government-backed campaigns for vaccination awareness have not been convincing, so maybe it is time for a more one-to-one approach for doctors to communicate with parents to allay their fears. “The debate isn’t really about vaccines and vaccine safety at all, but about a series of other issues,” said science journalist Seth Mnookin at a conference on disease prevention in Atlanta.

Image courtesy of Noodles and Beef

He highlighted that a simple conversation with the doctor would allow the parents to become more informed on concerns such as the numbers of vaccines a child has, their timing and the ingredients within the inoculation, have the discussion in such a way that parents can understand and absorb this information, this should mean having the initial discussion in pre-natal care so they have time to get used to the process. Parents may not have been informed about vaccinations since their last boosters, and since 5 new vaccinations have been introduced since 1985, it may be useful to have doctors “office hours” where concerned parents can come in to discuss the vaccines and the diseases they prevent at length. This of course this will be amazing news for NHS doctors who are already in a battle over their workload.

Whatever the cause of the scepticism of vaccines it is one of the many cases where scientific advised policy is now mistrusted and the perception with so much information at our fingertips we must be able to come up with a better answer, this scepticism could be dangerous in the long term as this could mean less risks will be taken in the pursuit of scientific discovery for risk of public criticism.

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