Vaccines are a necessary part of living in communities where infectious diseases could flourish. Yet some people have called into question the safety of vaccines and refuse to get their children vaccinated.
Some opponents to vaccines cite a now-discredited academic paper published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that claimed the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes autism. Other opposition comes from proponents of naturopathic medicine.
Recently, this problem was highlighted by the addition of Jenny McCarthy to The View, where she now has a position of perceived authority and a large audience to whom she can preach her uninformed views. She adamantly believes that vaccinations caused her son’s autism and often expresses her views as absolute fact. She bases this belief on her “mommy instinct” and says that she got her degree from the “University of Google.” Reason and credible scientific inquiry is apparently not significant to her.
Vaccination rates have dropped in Canada and the United States. Wales has experienced a measles outbreak with 1,200 cases since last November — mostly among children and teens under 18. The most recent measles outbreak in Canada was in 2011 with 725 cases in Quebec. While measles rarely kills, side effects can include deafness and pneumonia. Other diseases such as polio haven’t posed a reasonable threat in Canada since the 1950s, yet tetanus can still live in the soil world wide and can be deadly. A re-emergence of these diseases would be a huge step backward for public health.
A 2013 UNICEF office of research report called “Child well-being in rich countries” compared Canada’s immunization rate to that of 28 other countries as part of overall markers of child welfare. Average coverage for measles, polio and DPT3 (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus) in Canada has dropped below 85 per cent, which puts Canada second last among the 28 countries. Hungary and Greece maintain almost 99 per cent vaccination rates. The report remarks that among the richest countries, only Denmark, Canada and Austria have immunization rates below 90 per cent. These low rates suggest that this misinformation has influenced parents’ perception of vaccines, increasing the chance of illness among those who rely on the immunity of the general population — such as infants too young to be vaccinated and those with compromised immune systems.
While there are always risks with medicine, the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. The process of science requires skepticism, debate and solid evidence, but laypeople need to know enough about science to respect the body of academic work and trust peer-reviewed, reproducible research. Should we trust medicine without thought? No, but doctors, nurses and researchers aren’t trying to sell vaccines or cause autism. They are just trying to stop people from getting preventable diseases.