Origins of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

by Charlotte Couch

The advancement of vaccines and immunizations has led to a decrease in the number of patients diagnosed with diseases such as smallpox and polio over the past century. According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), approximately 9 million lives are saved annually as a result of vaccinations. Recently, however, there has been a rise of anti-vaccine activists and parents opting not to vaccinate their children. This begs the question of how the movement originated, and what the consequences of its influence are.  

The origins of the anti-vax movement can be traced to a 1998 research paper published in the Lancet by Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, titled “Illeal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” In it, he cites a correlation between the onset of developmental regressions in children and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Since the behavioral symptoms for autism were not observed in the children until after they received the MMR vaccine, he argued that the vaccine was a trigger for the development of the disorder.

However, not only was a small sample size of 12 subjects used, but also most of Wakefield’s co-authors ended up retracting the paper’s original conclusions, stating that the data supporting his argument was insufficient. Scientists who later attempted to replicate Wakefield’s experiment failed to procure the same results or conclusions. Later, the Lancet admitted there were several inaccuracies in the paper. The final nail in the coffin came when it was revealed that Wakefield was financially motivated in producing the specific results of his research. That is, he chose to present the data that supported his hypothesis and discarded data that contradicted it.

Despite these revelations, the anti-vax movement has continued to grow. In 2007, celebrity Jenny McCarthy publicly fought against vaccines believing that they had caused her son’s autism. In her book, Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds, McCarthy criticizes companies that produce vaccines:

“What number does it have to be for everyone to start listening to what the mothers of children who have autism have been saying for yours, which is…We vaccinated our baby and SOMETHING happened. SOMETHING happened. Why won’t anyone believe us?”

However, physicians say it is fallacious logic attempting to link autism and the use of vaccines, since both occur during early childhood. While there are some minor side effects, such as discomfort or tenderness at the site of the shot, these are only temporary. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, severe allergic reactions to a vaccine are extremely rare.

Despite many scientists and health professionals decrying the illegitimacy of the movement, it has continued to gain momentum. Paranoia continues among the movement’s members, with anti-vaxers refusing to trust “Big Pharma.” They remain skeptical over the chemicals used in vaccines and continue to believe that they cause physical and mental disease. The problem is a lot of their beliefs rely on anecdotal, rather than scientific evidence. Jenny McCarthy’s belief that a vaccine caused her son’s autism is one such example.  

What does the decreasing rate of vaccinated children mean for future populations? According to The New England Journal of Medicine, the risk of infectious diseases spreading throughout a community will increase. Those who cannot be vaccinated due to age or health reasons are no longer protected by herd immunity. This occurs when a large portion of people in a community is vaccinated, thereby reducing the chance of an outbreak, and ultimately protecting those without the vaccination. Already there have been a few cases in which a nearly eradicated disease reappears in a community where vaccination rates have dropped. For example, in 1974 Japan, 80 percent of children received the whooping cough vaccine. Only 393 cases of people diagnosed with whooping cough were recorded. Then, when the immunization rate dropped to 10 percent, there were more than 13,000 cases of whooping cough observed and 41-recorded deaths.

In 2014 there was an unusually high number of measles cases reported in the United States.  In one case study from 2013, an unvaccinated 17-year-old contracted measles when he visited London. After he arrived home in New York City, 58 cases of the measles were found in communities where vaccination rates were quite low. There were no reports of measles found in people who were vaccinated. However, 21 percent of those who were infected were infants who were too young for the MMR vaccine. This example demonstrates the importance of herd immunity in communities.

Choices based upon fear of the unknown and incorrect evidence can have devastating effects on a community. While it is understandable that some parents hesitate over vaccinating their children for safety reasons, it is important that the decision is made based upon a doctor’s recommendation and sound scientific evidence. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta says in his essay published on CNN, “The benefit of vaccines is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.”