Ben J.N. Harrison
The anti-vaccination movement is not only one of the most foolish movements of late; it is also one of the most dangerous. Skepticism is important and should be encouraged, but when it is at the expense of public health and rejects science, then it metamorphoses into pseudo-skepticism promoting selfishness and ignorance. In the following paper, the history of the anti-vaccination movement will be proffered, its main arguments will be put under scrutiny, and the role of the intellectual and the academic in the fight against the prevalence of misinformation and pseudoscience will be suggested.
How did we get here?
On the 28th of February 1998, British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a study he head-authored in revered medical journal The Lancet suggesting correlation between the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine and infantile autism . This conclusion was constructed based on the observation that certain children demonstrated early behavioral symptoms of autism approximately two weeks after receiving the MMR vaccine. Wakefield postulated that the MMR vaccine caused intestinal inflammation, which led to translocation of non-permeable peptides to the bloodstream, and as a result, to the brain, where they affected cognitive and behavioral development. The first red flag of this paper should be its sample size, which consisted of a mere twelve children. To anyone with even the most elementary understanding of experimental design, this should evoke dubiety; especially considering all twelve children were not control subjects and entered the experiment with symptoms suggestive of poor gastrointestinal health and lymphoid nodular hyperplasia, revealed on endoscopy. Shortly after its publication, Wakefield’s paper was retracted and his medical license was revoked.
Numerous follow-up studies done by other academics completely nullified Wakefield’s paper, finding absolutely no evidence in support of his ludicrous claims. A superb article written by Jeffery Gerber and Paul Offit examines numerous studies conducted worldwide searching for a link between MMR vaccines and autism . Its conclusion was unequivocal and lucid: no data supports the hypothesis that MMR vaccines cause autism.
Another study - an ecological study published in 2001 - evaluated four hundred and ninety-eight autistic children born in the United Kingdom between the years 1979 and 1992. From this study, it was observed that no change existed in the rates of autism diagnoses after the 1987 introduction of the triple MMR vaccine. Moreover, this study finds no difference in autism rates amongst vaccinated children and unvaccinated children .
Despite Wakefield’s study proving fraudulent, misrepresentative, and erroneous, the anti-vaccination movement still persists. Why?
Arguments Against Vaccination:
To understand the anti-vaxx movement, its arguments must be examined. Many exist, and unfortunately, not all will be examined, but it would at least suffice to examine a few.
Firstly, what is perhaps the most common argument against vaccination is as follows: ‘my child got his/her MMR shot and was shortly after diagnosed with autism; therefore the MMR shot caused his/her autism’. While this argument may sound cogent, it is anecdotal and relies on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, which states that A came before B, therefore A caused B. This type of thinking is flawed and denies the basic principle of experimental procedure that correlation does not equal causation. It is a commonly accepted fact that ages one and two – the ages when children usually receive the MMR vaccine – also happen to be the ages when children begin to show signs of autism. There is yet to be any kind of study demonstrating causation between these two events.
Secondly, another argument against vaccines claims that because thimerosal – an organic 50% ethylmercury antibacterial compound – is found in certain vaccines, they are thus harmful and can cause autism. Now, first of all, it should be noted that symptoms of autism and symptoms of mercury poisoning are wildly different, and the notion that mercury can cause autism is biologically implausible . In accordance with this thinking, a study conducted in 2015 examining the exposure of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques observed no behavioral changes in the vaccinated animals, nor any neuropathological changes in the cerebellum, hippocampus, or amygdala, thus refuting the hypothesis that thimerosal causes autism or related behavioral and cognitive conditions . Moreover, a study performed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated that mercury in vaccines caused not even subtle signs or symptoms of mercury poisoning .
When studies on thimerosal and the MMR vaccine failed to proffer any support for the hypothesis that they cause autism or are dangerous, new conspiracies began to formulate. Out of these, one of the most prominent suggests that the simultaneous exposure to multiple vaccines overwhelms or damages one’s immune system and creates an interaction with the central nervous system, thus triggering symptoms of autism. This speculative claim can be falsified by a few mere facts: (1) autism is not an immune-mediated disease, (2) vaccines do not overwhelm the immune system, as from a young age it is capable of generating a multitude of protective responses; some estimates even suggest the immune system could respond to thousands of vaccines simultaneously , and (3) multiple vaccinations have not proven to weaken or damage the immune system, as vaccinated and unvaccinated children show no difference in their vulnerability to infections not prevented by vaccines.
Finally, one of the most despicable arguments against vaccination is the assertion that mandatory inoculation impinges upon one’s personal freedom. In the rare instance of someone medically not able to get vaccinated, their health depends wholly on the health of those in their environment. This is called herd immunity, when spread of a disease is dulled because a high number of individuals within a population are immune to that disease. When herd immunity is created, the vaccinated individuals will provide protection for those not vaccinated. To intentionally deny vaccines because freedom is valued over public health is selfish and potentially lethal. In 2017, a measles outbreak occurred in Minnesota and seventy-three people were diagnosed with the disease, which are three more people than the total number of measles cases in 2016 in the United States nationwide . This should be a wake-up call to the anti-vaccine community at large, but unfortunately, it continues to persist and thrive.
In the Internet age, it is difficult to know whom to trust. Along with recent tech innovations has come a scary amount of misinformation. Luckily, it seems as if we’re headed in the right direction, with InfoWars’ far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones being deplatformed from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and Wikipedia banning Breitbart and InfoWars as information sources. However, this does not mean pseudoscience is not still prevalent. President Trump himself has propagated numerous conspiracy theories throughout his political career, such as Barack Obama being born in Kenya , climate change being politically charged and not manmade , and vaccines causing autism . Despite the alarming pervasiveness of pseudoscience, there still exists a way to fight it, and that responsibility lay in the hands of the world's academics. It is the duty of the academic to combat lies and speak the truth, above all else. The academic ought to thoroughly analyze claims for motives and hidden intentions, misrepresentation and distortion, bias and ideology, politics and religiosity. With the accrued information, the academic must publicize it, whether that is sought by writing, by visual means, by auditory means, et cetera. While critique and scrutiny are certainly repressed, they are needed now more than ever to assure that fraudulent and potentially dangerous theories and unscientific postulates do not gain authority.
The breakthrough of vaccination is indubitably one of the most important medical advancements of the last century; it has been sufficient in eradicating smallpox, one of the world’s deadliest diseases, once generally feared, now completely nonexistent. Immunization is every individual’s right, and if that right is not used, not only is individual health at risk, but so is public health. In cases such as these, we must trust science and fight quasi-scientific pontifications and crackpot hypothesizing by approaching new claims with investigative eyes and identifying fraudulence when found.