There is no scientific controversy surrounding the effectiveness of vaccination programs. Whenever a vaccine has been successfully introduced and been widely used a sharp decline in the incidence of diseases it protects against is observed, meaning fewer hospitalisations and fewer deaths. That is because vaccines not only protect vaccinated individuals from a disease, they also boost a community’s “herd immunity”. Herd immunity occurs when a high enough proportion of a community are immune to a particular disease to disrupt the chains of infection, stopping or slowing the spread of disease. This prevents epidemics and protects individuals who are particularly vulnerable.
Because this generation hasn’t lived with widespread whooping cough, deaf blind and intellectually disabled rubella babies, or paralytic polio, we no longer fear these horrendous diseases. As a result, immunisation starts to seem like an unnecessarily unpleasant precaution. I imagine that it is particularly horrible allowing a stranger to inject your infant with a mysterious fluid, but all credible medical research points to vaccination as a necessary health measure, especially for children.
Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination lobby repeatedly refers to pseudo-science and falsified research to fan the flames of people’s concerns. One of the most persistent myths about vaccines, specifically the MMR or Measles Mumps and Rubella combined vaccine (yay! Three birds with one needle!) is that immunisations have been linked to autism spectrum disorders. The MMR vaccine controversy began in 1998 with the publication of a fraudulent research paper in the medical journal The Lancet which was fully retracted in 2010 after it was revealed that the evidence presented in the paper had been falsified. The author of the paper, Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council. He had broken ethical codes and had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest. He is no longer permitted to practice medicine as a result. Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, described the research as “utterly false” and said that the journal had been “deceived”.
In the wake of the scandal multiple large epidemiological studies were undertaken. Reviews of the evidence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK National Health Service, and the Cochrane Library all found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. They concluded unanimously that the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed any risks. Sadly the damage had already been done. Enough people chose not to vaccinate that herd immunity has begun to break down in communities across the western world. In recent years there has been a resurgence of diseases virtually unseen for a generation, including whooping cough and measles.
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We have a responsibility to immunise against dangerous diseases. Encephalitic measles is deadly. If a pregnant woman contracts rubella during the first trimester she will most likely either have a miscarriage or a stillborn baby. If the baby survives the infection it can be born with severe heart disorders, blindness, deafness, or other life-threatening organ disorders. Mumps can cause deafness. Even the flu can be deadly, especially to the elderly or immunosuppressed. Spend a few minutes doing a Google image search on each of these diseases and you will start to realise how absurd it is that we are allowing them to re-emerge.