Vaccination has a long and pretty successful history. The Chinese were doing a form of it in the 10th century. In the late 1800s it had become common practice in England. Vaccines led to massive drops in mortality from diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, smallpox and more.
The general idea of how they work is quite simple. A vaccine contains a very small amount of the germs that cause a disease. When you receive the vaccine your body reacts by making special proteins called antigens that work to destroy the disease germs. These antigens linger in your immune system so if you are exposed to the disease in the future your body is prepared to fight it away.
However a very strange movement has been gaining traction recently: the anti-vaccination movement. Anti-vaxers spout pseudo-scientific evidence to justify not vaccinating their children.
The most common claim is that vaccines lead to autism. Autism is a range of developmental disorders that affect people’s ability to communicate and socialise. The cause is unknown and autism diagnoses have increased markedly in the last decade. Some have attributed this increase to vaccinations despite over a dozen scientific papers stating that there is no connection.
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It is easy to be sympathetic with parents who are confused about why their child is having a hard time and who want something to blame. But vaccines are really important. Not just to prevent disease in the vaccinated, but to protect others through “herd immunity.” The idea that when the vast majority of a community are immune to a disease then that disease is less likely to get a grip in the community. Babies don’t get their first measles, mumps, and rubella immunisations until they are 12–15 months. Before that herd immunity is relied upon; vaccination is integral to public health.
Recently there has been a measles outbreak in the Waikato. Schools were closed. At the same time No Forced Vaccines spokesperson Katherine Smith was given time on Radio New Zealand, and she quoted purely anecdotal evidence linking the measles vaccine to autism. Fair and balanced reporting is important, but not when it gives credence totally unscientific rumours for which the victims are young children.