The Vaccine War

The war incurred by ‘anti-vaxxers’ has been taking place since it was discovered that one did not need to die from smallpox, and the first-ever vaccine graced the human race (circa 1797 for your educational stimulation). Since then, vaccines have been created for diseases that were almost guaranteed to kill you: cholera, the bubonic plague, typhoid, tetanus, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, influence, yellow fever, the list is almost endless because human discovery and modern day medicine has made leaps and bounds in the past few centuries.

Ironically, the war between those who would like to decide whether they should be vaccinated, and those who want to enforce vaccinations by means of legislature, has only become more heated. Now and again this topic is at the forefront of headlines, when an un-vaccinated child dies or their un-vaccination leads to the death of a peer. 2016 is now blessed to see this argument continue into the new year as the Tribeca Film Festivals recent decision to pull the controversial documentary “Vaxxed: From Cover Up to Catastrophe” has people up in arms and retreating to their respective corners.

The films main premise links vaccines to autism; an argument that has been made by the films maker Andrew Wakefield for decades despite him having his medical license revoked and extensive criticism. Initially, the festival argued they were simply presenting an opposing side and wanted to incite discussion around the topic, but after multiple petitions and mounting pressure, they decided not to premiere the film. There is a fear that, should the movie be premiered on such a public platform, it will invoke fear in parents who will then choose not to vaccinate. All it takes are small clusters of people who decide not to vaccinate to cause outbreaks. So why, in lieu of the extensive research that proves vaccinations prevent death and are not linked to autism, do so many parents choose not to vaccinate their children? Why do my roommate and I continue to have lively debates about whether we believe in vaccinations? While the answer to the second question is simply because my mother is a hippie and my roommate has more faith in modern day medicine than I do, the answer to the first is far more complex.

Vaccinating ones’ children is less popular than people seem to believe. While we seldom hear of a friend being hospitalized for the mumps, 5.2% of parents of kindergarteners in Maine opted out of vaccinating their children in 2014, 80% fewer children are getting measles shots, on average 1 in 20 students are not vaccinated, and in some schools in the US as little as 37.5% of children are vaccinated. Some parents are furious over such statistics, as they believe this jeopardizes their own children’s health. However, this raises the question of where the line is drawn between ones’ freedom to decide for themselves, a fundamental human right, and the risk this decision could impose on others?

The reasons for not vaccinating are extensive. Some believe that vaccines are not as effective as pharmaceutical companies or medical professionals claim; they believe that vaccines may only boost our defenses temporarily, but in the long-term only serve to weaken the immune system. Multiple studies that show the ineffectiveness of vaccines are often cited to support such a claim; an example of one being a 2007 article, “Nigeria Fights Rare Vaccine-Derived Polio Outbreak,” which states that vaccines were the cause of a polio outbreak in Nigeria, Chad and Angola. Similar articles exist for whooping cough, the measles and mumps and the flu vaccine. Others believe in natural immunity building and that the body has innate and adaptive immunity to diseases. Many mothers believe that breastfeeding forgoes the need for vaccines as breast milk has been proven to strengthen a baby’s immune system.

Many parents also have an issue with exposing their children to vaccine ingredients and believe it introduces toxins into the body. Some common vaccine ingredients include aluminum, formaldehyde, MSG and thimerosal. As is the case in such debates, many believe that these ingredients are harmful, while others claim it is not a cause for concern. Vaccine safety evidence is not rock solid, and all drugs are associated with some risk and adverse reactions; which creates some apprehension among parents. There are no credible studies that have looked at the health outcomes of those who have been vaccinated versus those who have not. Many attribute this to the idea that vaccines have been considered safe since their inception. Finally, the last reason parents choose not to vaccinate is because of the infamous ‘vaccines cause autism’ or may lead to other conditions debate. While Wakefield may have been debunked, there are still several studies that show there could be a link between the two.

Parents who choose not to vaccinate are often stigmatized, stereotyped, and attacked for putting the greater good in danger. While incidences of non-vaccinated children falling ill or getting a peer sick exist, rarely do we see the other side of the story or have objective conversations on the topic (shout-out to my roomie who thinks I’m crazy). Is there even a point to hearing the other side of the story as it has been estimated that 732,000 deaths have been avoided since 1994? Obviously there is no clear answer to this question: every year parents still decide not to vaccinate their children, every year parents who believe in vaccinations fight them on this, and every year children die of preventable diseases due to personal parental decisions or lack of access. Events such as the recent Tribeca Film Festival fiasco ignite conversations, but are they the right kind?




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