Taking the sting out of vaccines

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Ah needles – nobody likes ’em. Even if you’re not squeamish, you’ll probably hold your breath and look away when the nurse gets ready to jab you in the arm. But we continue to do it, knowing that momentary discomfort is a small price to pay for protection against potentially life-threatening diseases. However, there are some people who disagree.

There is no doubt that vaccines have revolutionized medicine: many childhood illnesses are but faint memories in the developed world. Polio is a prime example. The polio virus, which mainly affects children under 5 years of age, can cause total lifelong paralysis in mere hours. If the breathing muscles become paralysed, polio can be fatal. In the 1950s, parents were terrified and felt completely helpless in the face of this crippling disease preying on their children, which left approximately 11 000 Canadians paralysed between 1949 and 1954. Then, in 1955, a miracle: a polio vaccine was perfected, and children were effectively immunized against the disease. Ever since, children in most of the world have been vaccinated against polio and the number of cases worldwide has decreased by over 99% between 1988 and 2012. Thanks to vaccination, polio is now endemic to only 3 countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan), compared to 125 countries in 1988.

Other devastating childhood illnesses that were a simple fact of life for our grandparents, like measles and whooping cough, are now also easily preventable by vaccination.

In fact, vaccinations have been so effective that we seem to have completely forgotten the horror of these childhood illnesses. The proof? Some parents are now choosing to not vaccinate their children.

This baffling decision is largely due to rampant misinformation about vaccines. We live in an age of social media, where celebrities, bloggers, and other such “medical experts” have a vast pulpit from which to preach their anti-vaccination message.* One of the most vocal anti-vaccine advocates is the actress Jenny McCarthy. She is convinced that vaccines “triggered” her son’s autism. Although McCarthy has no medical or science background (in her own words, she gets her information from the “university of Google”), her anti-vaccine crusade has garnered much support from fearful parents in many countries, including Canada (check out the Jenny McCarthy body count). In interviews, McCarthy comes off as passionate and relatable – she’s just a mom doing what she thinks is best for her child. It’s not hard to see why parents of a child with autism, looking for a scapegoat, could easily be convinced of her beliefs.

Sadly, Jenny McCarthy is not alone. A quick Google search reveals a whole anti-vaccine community – it’s almost become trendy to not vaccinate. Where did all these ideas about vaccines causing autism come from? Why the backlash? It can all be traced back to research by Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published Wakefield’s study, in which he linked autism to the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. After certain evidence came to light, the journal retracted the study. It turned out that Wakefield was being paid to advise solicitors hired by parents who believed that the MMR vaccine had harmed their children. Furthermore, the study was based on a sample of just 12 children, with no control group. His “research” was comprised of highly unscientific methods (such as collecting blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party) and using parental anecdotes and beliefs as data.

It seems that even the parents of the children were kept in the dark about what was really going on. In an interview after the study was published, the father of one child noted “Please let me know if Andrew W has his doctor’s license revoked. His misrepresentation of my son in his research paper is inexcusable. His motives for this I may never know.” After investigation, Wakefield was charged with research fraud and unethical treatment of children. He was given multiple chances to replicate his results, but always refused. He has since been struck off the medical register, thereby banning him from practicing medicine in his native UK. Multiple studies by other researchers were unsuccessful in replicating Wakefield’s results. In fact, no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autistic disorders has ever been found.

But the damage was done and anti-vaccine hysteria took off. In the UK, MMR vaccination rates were above 90% until 1998, when they started dropping, and were down to 79% by 2003. Not surprisingly, measles, a disease with no local transmission in the UK in 1994, came back with a vengeance, becoming endemic again in 2008. Due to a decade of MMR vaccine fear, there were now a sufficient number of children susceptible to measles to support the continuous spread of the disease. By the time Wakefield’s paper was finally retracted in 2010, 30 367 cases of measles were reported across Europe and the UK – all for a vaccine-preventable disease. Measles is no joke – it can cause eye disorders, deafness or brain damage, and kills 200 000 people around the world each year, many of them are children.

Because people can now easily travel great distances, so can diseases. In 2011, a group of unvaccinated Canadian travellers brought back measles after visiting France, causing the biggest outbreak in Canada since the disease had been essentially eradicated in the 1990s.

And it’s not just measles – other diseases that were made rare thanks to vaccination are making a comeback as the anti-vaccine movement gains popularity in Canada. In 2012, there were pertussis (whooping cough) outbreaks in British-Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. One month-old Harper Whitehead from Lethbridge Alberta tragically died as a result, since he was too young to have received his vaccine.

In addition to the autism fear, some parents choose not to vaccinate because they believe vaccines cause SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Unfortunately, babies are especially at risk for SIDS around the age vaccines are usually administered, so the two events appear to be linked even though there is no evidence of this – unvaccinated babies can just as easily die of SIDS.

Another ill-founded parental concern is that a baby’s immune system can become “overloaded” when too many vaccines are administered. The truth is, a baby is exposed to more antigens with a common cold than with a vaccine.

Vaccines are one of the safest medical products available – they are all rigorously tested and continue to be monitored even when on the market. Every single batch of vaccine released for public use in Canada has to conform to strict standards to ensure its safety. Most adverse reactions to vaccines are minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or minor fever. In contrast, the diseases they offer protection against can cause permanent damage or even death. Those who choose not to vaccinate are putting not only themselves or their own children at risk, but also those who cannot get vaccinated, such as people with auto-immune diseases, allergies to vaccine components or newborn babies (vaccines are usually administered a few months after birth).

Vaccinations protect you, and also those around you. For a healthy adult, whooping cough is mostly a nuisance. For your newborn baby, it can be fatal. A little jab is a small price to pay to potentially save your baby’s life, wouldn’t you say? Please, vaccinate your kids. Stop the insanity.

*”Hold on a minute, The Hedgehog. Aren’t you just another blogger? Why should we trust you?” Ah, excellent point! In the immortal words of Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow: “You don’t have to take my word for it”: WHO vaccine myths  Mayo Clinic vaccine myths .

For a full list of references used, click here.

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