Paying The Toll For Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric

The anti-vaccination movement has run a two-decade-long campaign of fear-mongering. It’s a well-funded campaign with a provocative narrative. They warn anyone who will listen that vaccines are dangerous, useless, and that they may cause autism. They spread propaganda originating from a fabricated 1998 study by ex-medical doctor Andrew Wakefield. It continues to be a difficult misinformation campaign to blunt. Wakefield’s proposed autism-vaccine link is now completely debunked, yet the anti-vaccine movement finds new reasons to fight vaccinations. The movement has responded with disdain to the mountain of evidence showing safety and efficacy. What began as fear surrounding autism has become a more generalized and less specific narrative. Whenever a specific objection has been disproven they change the argument, consistently, ideologically, skewing or even replacing the facts to fit their preferred narrative that vaccines and vaccination schedules are unnecessary and dangerous. Despite vitriolic rhetoric from the anti-vaccine community, the science clearly shows that vaccines are low risk and high reward—a consensus shared by the vast majority of medical and public health organizations. Now, a measles outbreak in the state of California presents a scenario that epidemiologists have feared for years: the decline of herd immunity and the return of vaccine-preventable diseases with all their fury. 

An iron lung ward for treating polio patients at Los Amigos Hospital, 1953. Via Wikimedia.

Vaccines have been, for the most part, a victim of their successes. 80 years ago diseases that are now vaccine-preventable were common; birth defects, disfigurement, iron lung wards, and child fatalities were a part of daily life. There are still people walking around today with permanent disfigurement and paralysis from that era. Unfortunately, humans have a short memory for this type of tragedy. Iron lung wards and high infant mortality are now a thing of the past, in the developed world (for now). For vaccinated generations the immediacy and the fear of those diseases has waned. The security of modern medicine plus 20 years of unrelenting scaremongering and misinformation have caused a slow decline in vaccination rates.

There have always been fear-mongers related to vaccines. What changed for the Western world over the last 20 years was the absence of the diseases. The children of the 1970s and 1980s for the most part had high vaccination rates. Anti-vaccine rhetoric didn’t get much traction in that group because those parents lost childhood friends and siblings, saw the iron lung wards and spent summers unable to go in the pool due to polio. For them, vaccinating their children was no-brainer. Their children, however, grew up never knowing a friend who died of polio, never saw a friend disfigured by smallpox, and never lost a baby brother to whooping cough. For the children-turned-parents of that generation the danger seemed faint and unreal, medical history rather than reality.

In the 1990s, fears about autism and mercury made the danger of vaccinations seem much more real and palpable than the benefits, especially to those same disease-free children-turned-parents. No one at that time knew that Wakefield’s paper was a fabrication, done so that he could market his own competing vaccine. In the wake of his forgery, anti-vaccine rhetoric gained traction: laws were changed, exemptions were given, misinformed parents refused vaccination. When the medical community realized that the anti-vaccine rhetoric was gaining traction, the information push-back came late. It lacked the star-studded, well-funded polish of the anti-vaccine rhetoric. Those of us in the medical community have been trying to debunk the rhetoric for years, but it has become a game of whack-a-mole nonsense. Knock down one ludicrous objection and another one arises. Everyone in the medical community and public health community knew that that sooner or later the bill for this foolish ideology would come due.

Now I believe we are seeing the first signs that vaccination rates have reached a tipping point negating herd immunity. Although herd immunity is called a myth by the anti-vax crowd it has been protecting the unvaccinated since their movement started. Now the informed are no longer numerous enough to protect the misinformed.

California is struggling with a continuing measles epidemic and it is rapidly becoming a historic event. Disease investigators have yet to find “patient zero,” or the person who triggered the outbreak. Officials at the California Department of Public Health said it was most likely an infected woman who visited local theme parks. The illness was then spread to other visitors, many of whom were not vaccinated. Health officials have identified 73 people in four states who have contracted measles. The vast majority of infections (35) are in California. Utah recorded two cases, while Colorado and Washington state each had one case. Most fell ill after visiting Disneyland or Disney California Adventure in December, while some were exposed to people who traveled to the theme parks. The incubation period for people exposed at Disney parks ended last week, and health officials are on the lookout for secondary infections. An NBC affiliate in the Bay Area reported that shoppers at a Costco and a nearby Walmart may have been exposed by an infected patron on January 18. The shopper may also have visited a nearby restaurant; however, the name of the restaurant has not been released.

This child shows a classic day-4 rash caused by measles. Via Wikimedia.

California has long been a center of anti-vaccine successes. It has had a large increase in vaccine opt-out rates. To opt out, parents must file a personal belief exemption, or PBE, a signed statement avowing that vaccines are against their personal beliefs. Most states have a medical exemption, but California is one of the biggest to have a personal belief exemption, and theirs is especially permissive. In the 2007-2008 school year, the statewide-PBE rate was 1.56 percent. By 2013-2014, the most recent year statistics are available, the rate had jumped to 3.15 percent. Adults are at fault, not only for not having their kids vaccinated, but also for not seeking vaccinations themselves, including those who have failed to get booster shots. Adults need vaccinations if:

  • They were never vaccinated as children
  • Newer vaccines were not available when they were children
  • Immunity can fade over time

The facts of the outbreak have lit into the anti-vax community. There is no shortage of the usual platitudes from the anti-vax ideologues, mostly post-hoc contortions trying to blame this development on the use of vaccinations. It has taken an event of this magnitude to swing public opinion. National news outlets, previously friendly or accepting to the anti-vaccine hysteria, are now beginning to turn on the anti-vax community. Some are rightly pointing out that the decline in California vaccinations is contributing to the uncontrolled spread of measles.

It is a sad commentary that return of preventable illness will probably be the only way to derail the anti-vax narrative for the general public. I am just worried how many people will have to become ill, how many might have to die of preventable diseases, before we see the type of strong public health initiatives of the 1950s. No one can say with certainty, but many epidemiologists are surely hoping that this outbreak might swing public health policy in California. That state is especially at risk since it is very populous and has a large immigrant and tourist population that is high risk for bringing active disease to the US, as here.

I fear that the final impact of reckless disinformation has yet to be felt in the world. Hopefully, it will not take bigger and more deadly epidemics to reverse what has become a religious level ideology for some people. Maybe, just maybe, we can use this relatively small event to turn the tide in California. Maybe it will spur a return to more sensible vaccination policies and inspire people to question the gutting of public health laws and reverse the erosion of the protection that vaccine schedule provides.

This may happen, but only time will tell. I really just hope more people will not have to unnecessarily die before we have to rediscover the lesson that our grandparents learned at a young age. Vaccines are a medical wonder that protect us from disease; those diseases are not gone, they are waiting. Without vaccines, disease, disfigurement, and death are waiting for us to give them an opening. Do not give them the chance to return—vaccinate. I don’t just advise it, I live it and so does my family.

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If you would like to know more about Vaccines and Vaccination:

Anti-Vax to Pro-Vax parents

Voices For Vaccines

Centers Disease Control

Disclaimer: This post is my personal opinion, it is not a substitute for medical care. It is for informational purposes only. The information on Skeptoid blog is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. This post does not reflect the opinion of my partners, professional affiliates, or academic affiliations. I have no financial conflicts of interest to disclose.

About Stephen Propatier

Stephen Propatier is a board certified acute care nurse practitioner specializing in spine and sports medicine. He is a member of the Society for Science Based Medicine.
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5 Responses to Paying The Toll For Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric

  1. Graham says:

    Anti-Vax predates Wakefield, a journalist ran a scare-campaign in the 1980’s that resulted in the whooping-cough vaccine being replaced with a less effective form. Prominent in that was Barbara Lowe-Fisher, who is still a prominent anti-vaccine advocate.

    • Alison Hudson says:

      Wakefield spawned the modern movement, though, the one centered on autism and the MMR vaccine. He is, in many ways, the genesis of the recent breakout.

    • Thanks graham. that is why I included the link showing that anti-vax goes back to the origins of vaccines. That said Wakefield and his study is the current demarcation point to the rise of autism and the scare mongering related to vaccines. It formed the ideological foundation of the con argument and all other current arguments are branches off that tree. It gave anti-vax organizations support and gave a false scientific argument to anti-vaccination.

  2. donocolormd says:

    The “funny” thing about the autism connection is that it is really a statistical one and not a scientific one. The same statistical connection can be made to the rise in sonograms as a regular part of prenatal care, yet no one pointed to that. There are plenty of other statistical connections, but none are hard science. And, yes, vaccination fears have been around for a long time. Read the letters of some of the founding fathers, especially Ben Franklin, who did not get one of his children protected against smallpox. When his son died, he got himself & the rest of his family vaccinated (this is not a verbatim retelling, obviously). I am one of the generation who does not know the “fear” of dangerous diseases, nor have I lost a sibling because of polio, but I make sure to get my child vaccinated. Th science behind the practice is too compelling to be ignored or explained away by some statistical idiosyncracy.

    • TorchWood says:

      When the practice of “engrafting” was initiated by Zabdiel Boyleston in Boston when Ben Franklin was a teenager another local doctor was violently opposed to it and spread a rumor (among others) that inoculation for smallpox caused bubonic plague.

      Anti-vax has been there since protection for fatal diseases was first introduced to
      Europe and the New World. (In Africa and the Ottoman Empire it had already been practiced for generations without much comment.)

      And the Anti-vax position was just as stupid and counter-productive then as it is now. Populations that refuse vaccination will see people die unnecessarily.

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