The still rising trend of anti-vaccination activism threatens not only the families who choose not to vaccinate their children, but also society as a whole. But it shouldn’t take a deadly resurgence of measles for this to become clear. A brief look at both the history and the science of vaccines can immediately disprove the basis for skepticism toward vaccines in the first place. However, the movement against vaccination is part of a broader, and equally dangerous trend that casts doubt on scientific consensus, and substitutes ideas based on fear, cursory research, and anecdotal evidence. Often, with the help of the internet, these ideas are presented with equal weight to established facts that have been verified through the scientific process.
The effectiveness of vaccines is undeniable. Since 1988, cases of polio around the world have fallen by a striking 99 percent. Smallpox, which killed between 300 and 500 million people over the course of the 20th century, was declared wiped out in 1980. The Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2014 that vaccinations will prevent over 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the past 2 decades. The dramatic decrease in morbidity extends to a wide range of diseases. In the US, this includes a 99 percent drop in deaths from h. influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, and a 98 percent drop in tetanus, a 91 percent drop in hepatitis A, and an 83 percent drop in hepatitis B.
Nonetheless, the anti-vaccine movement is on the rise. In nine US states, less than two thirds of children between 19 and 35 months old have received a seven-part vaccination that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and hepatitis B. In the US, as well as in Britain in France, measles vaccinations have fallen below the 95 percent threshold necessary to stop the disease from spreading – measles is highly contagious, with a single infected individual able to infect more than a dozen others.
Unsurprisingly, the slump in vaccination rates has already had dramatic effects. In December of 2014, a measles outbreak, which started at Disneyland in Southern California, infected 111 people, making its way into six other states as well as Canada and Mexico. That outbreak coincided with falling vaccination rates. In 2000, just .77 percent of kindergarteners had taken “personal belief exemptions,” or PBEs, from vaccinations. By 2013, that number had risen to 3.15 percent. And that number does not include all children who have failed to receive vaccinations, counting only those whose parents took the PBE.
Policymakers must strike a balance between building trust in established norms, and forcing vaccines on the population. Vaccines are most effective when the entire population, or nearly the entire population, is vaccinated. Anti-vaccination arguments are diverse, and can come from both the left and right, but tend to share a sense of distrust in established science, or in government mandates and recommendations.
According to Dr. Heidi J Larson, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:
“Some are totally dedicated to questioning or refusing vaccination as their primary mission. Others are movements who started around other issues such as: freedom from government control; anti-big-business; naturopathy and homeopathy – adding vaccines to the list of non-natural substances to avoid, such as vaccines perceived by some as having excessive chemical and toxins – and anti-GMO groups who also sometimes converge with anti-vaccine groups and sentiments.”
In February, President Donald Trump stoked the fire of anti-vaccination sentiment when he mentioned one argument commonly made by anti-vaccine activists.
“What’s going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really, it’s such an incredible…it’s a really horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase,” he said.
Autism experts have disputed the claim that there has been a significant increase in autism diagnoses. Small increases are likely attributable to better understanding of autism and more accurate diagnoses.
In 2014, Trump tweeted: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”
Extensive research has shown there is no connection between widely used vaccines and autism.
Despite evidence that vaccines save millions of lives annually, the use of vaccines continues to be disputed. The skepticism is part of a broader, dangerous trend that comes from broad distrust in governments and other institutions. Campaigning that promotes the benefits of vaccines may not be enough to eliminate the public’s doubt when it comes to vaccination. Taking a more forceful approach may backfire. Ultimately, a broader foundation is needed on which to rebuild public trust in government and scientific institutions, especially in the US. If successful, this broad approach would not only address concerns over vaccinations, but would help the public accept the scientific consensus surrounding climate change, and would mitigate the kind of conspiracy theories that helped put Donald Trump in the White House to begin with.