Controversy in Science

Why, STILL, do we not trust vaccines?

^ A question which causes many to pull their hair out.

The percentage of Americans who believe that vaccinations are ‘crucial’ to health has fallen in the past decade, according to Research!America. It appears that education on the benefits of being vaccinated against potentially life-threatening illnesses continues to be an uphill battle.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that vaccines given to young children over the past twenty years will prevent…

  • 322 million illnesses
  • 21 million hospitalisations
  • 732,000 deaths

Over their lifetimes. Statistics such as this are outstanding and highlight the success of introducing vaccines at an early age. The sooner the vaccine can be administered, the chance of the infant encountering such a virus is reduced. Vaccinations aren’t just limited to young age though; the vaccine for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is now administered to girls across the country and it is ensured to decrease the incidence of cervical cancer which can be caused by HPV.

One of the concerns associated with vaccines is not knowing exactly WHAT is being injected into our bodies. I’ll start by explaining what is inside that syringe. There are many different types of vaccine, which include;

  • Whole inactivated: this is the whole organism but is inactive, e.g. Hepatitis A.
  • Live-attenuated: the microorganism itself in a weakened form, e.g. MMR.
  • Recombinant: using the protein, sugar or capsid (coating) which our immune system responds to, e.g. Shingles.
  • Toxoid: this uses the toxin which is made by the virus, e.g. Tetanus.

These are mixed with stabilisers, which ensure that the vaccine can be stored safely. All these types can provoke a reaction from our immune system, but to a less severe scale than what the original virus would. From this reaction, we then develop an immune memory to this virus. If we are exposed to the virus in the future, we can easily abolish it before it is able to establish and affect our health.

The first ‘vaccine’ was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. He observed that milkmaids never caught smallpox, as they had previously suffered from cowpox which is a similar strain. His theory was therefore that having cowpox, which has less severe side effects, would offer protection from smallpox. He tested this theory by injecting the cowpox virus into a young boy; that wouldn’t go down well nowadays. As predicted, the boy did not exhibit any of the symptoms when he was injected with smallpox. A vaccine was born!

Let’s now fast-forward to 1977. After a successful campaign to educate people on the benefits of the vaccine, smallpox became the first ever disease to be eradicated. Many of the readers of this blog will have been born after that year, and unlike their 20th-century ancestors, have never considered the prospect of dying from smallpox. We can thank Jenner and the hundreds of scientists that followed for pursuing the development of a cure for our own benefit.

If you had the chance to look at the answer sheet before the exam, with no consequences, you would, wouldn’t you? This is what it’s like for your body having a vaccine; being initially exposed without consequences means that you know what to expect, and when that exam/virus comes around, you know you are going to smash it.

So why are many people still on the fence about vaccines? Why was an uproar caused when Australia made vaccination compulsory? It is unfortunate that the story of public trust in the scientific community couldn’t have riden into the sunset on a white horse. Why is this the case?

For many of you, if I say, ‘MMR Vaccine’, I’m sure you’d say… ‘Autism’.

The medical professional Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent paper in 1998 which claimed that there was a link between those given the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine and the onset of Autism. Saying that this caused concern among the public would be an understatement. The number of parents choosing to vaccinate their children radically decreased, which is shown in the graph below;

Photo credit: © Tangled Bank Studios; data from the NHS

Published science is often repeated by other scientists, and as such they found that they could not replicate Wakefield’s findings. An undercover investigation by Sunday Times in 2005 revealed that there were conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part. How so? Wakefield was being funded an impressive sum by lawyers filing a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company which produced the MMR vaccine. The paper was withdrawn, and it has been proven that the MMR vaccine does NOT cause Autism.

Even in 2012, many years after it was disproven, the MMR coverage was not at 100%. The reason behind this was a lack of public trust. A once-respected medical professional had stated that the MMR vaccine was harmful; what is not to say that other medical professionals are lying as well? The best case would be to not participate in vaccination and allow many to suffer from and harbour the viruses so that they could be spread to those also not vaccinated!

The ‘real’ side effects of the vaccine can affect those undergoing chemotherapy or have HIV or AIDS due to weakened immune systems. Any woman that is pregnant should also avoid vaccination, but vaccination is advised for anyone planning to start a family. For everyone else, the side effects of vaccines are extremely rare. These events, however, do not include autism, food allergies or cancer.

It is fortunate that the General Medical Council allows peer review and strict regulation to avoid such situations occurring once more. We can confidently trust such a huge body to ensure that what we agree to have injected into our body will offer invaluable protection. A rash is preferable to polio, and a sore arm or an itch for a couple of days is definitely worth it in order to contribute to the eradication of disease.

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