Despite concerted worldwide initiatives to eradicate measles, the disease is making a sudden comeback in both the United States and Europe. Since early 2016, measles has been spreading across the European continent, infecting 3,400 people and killing 17 in Romania since 2016, while Italy has reported more than 200 cases since January 2017. Meanwhile, Minnesota has counted 44 confirmed cases since April 11, making this the largest outbreak in the state in three decades and the largest in the US this year. It is surprising that measles, a disease thought to be close to eradication in the early 2000s in the developed world, is making its way across the West once again.
However, this has been a long time coming. Vaccination rates have been dropping throughout the West, and the highest incidence of new measles infections occur where vaccination rates are lowest, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and Ukraine. To stem the tide, Italy recently required all children to receive vaccinations against twelve common diseases by the age of six, imposing a fine if parents fail to comply. Germany followed suit by imposing a €2,500 fine if parents fail to obtain medical consultations on vaccinating, although refusing vaccinations is still legal.
That things have escalated to this point can largely be blamed on the increasingly influential anti-vaccination movement. Originally a fringe group, it now has entered the mainstream of a global society that has become ever more skeptical about established facts and amenable to theories that allege a link between vaccinations and autism in children. When President Trump indicated he believed in the autism-vaccine-link, and appointed notorious anti-vaccination proponent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to lead a commission on autism, he provided the movement with an invigorating push.
Furthermore, as many deadly diseases that for the longest time plagued mankind have been eradicated as a result of widespread vaccination, a growing number of people are unwilling to take a chance and vaccinate a child against a disease its parents believe it will likely not contract. The result is what a Minnesota Department of Health official described as a “public health nightmare”, where lots of unvaccinated people are living in densely populated areas without adequate protection against a contagious disease.
While the alleged causation for autism and other side-effects has been disproven by a plethora of scientific studies, vaccines are coming under attack from another direction as well. The culprit to be blamed here is, ironically, the medical community itself. When the Ebola virus ravaged West Africa in 2014, pharmaceutical companies’ failure to pour investments into research for creating vaccines for tropical diseases was put on full display. These “neglected diseases” are adversely affecting low-income countries, yet only 2016 out of more than 148,000 medical trials concerned neglected diseases, while they account for 10% of the global disease burden.
Thus, when an Ebola vaccine developed by Merck was declared 100% effective against the virus, hopes that a cure had at last been found were running high. But a study published in April conducted by doctors from the U.S. National Academy of Medicine called the vaccine’s effectiveness into question. The study argued that the methodology of the vaccine’s field trials was flawed. Instead of randomizing the test subjects, the trial randomized groups of people who had been in contact with an Ebola infected individual. Some clusters were given the vaccine immediately, while others were given shots after the incubation period of 21 days. The researchers estimated it would take 10 days for the vaccine to have effects, leading them to discount Ebola cases occurring within this 10 day period – a number amounting to 20 of 3,232 participants contractingEbola despite the vaccine.
News of a major scientific breakthrough, which is subsequently shattered by the revelation that the methodology was not holding up to scientific scrutiny, is contributing to skepticism about the usefulness of vaccines. Such sentiments will only be stoked by the Merck vaccine’s somewhat vaguely defined purpose as a treatment only for people most at risk of being exposed to a sick person during outbreaks, rather than a large-scale preventive vaccine. While the vaccine is not licensed yet, it was nonetheless approved for use in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Other than Merck’s, there are roughly a dozen other vaccines in development. The most advanced seems to be a drug developed by scientists from the Gamaleya Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Russia, which will be deployed in Guinea by the end of June in case the virus rears its head in the country.
Big Pharma’s declining capacity to develop proper vaccines has been offset, to some extent, by the private and non-profit sector. Many companies active in the countries most affected by the Ebola epidemic devoted millions to improving local infrastructures. Contributing to the relief efforts, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg donated $25 million, while Google’s CEO Larry Page pledged $15 million. Some private companies went even further: aluminium giant Rusal built a state of the art medical research center and hospital in Guinea, which helped patients achieve the highest Ebola survival rate registered in the country: 62.5%. NGOs such as Oxfam came to the assistance of 1.3 million people by ensuring safe water supplies and supplying protective equipment.
The net effect of scientifically unsound methodologies making data gathered during trials unreliable, as well as misinformation about the effects of vaccines, is causing a shift in the way societies perceive immunization. Distrust of the utility of vaccinations increasingly feeds into a narrative questioning the need for them in the first place. Unfortunately, this path is leading in the wrong direction, threatening the revival of deadly diseases whose eradication had been taken for granted for too long.