Searching for a Vaccine Against Misinformation

<strong>BY EMILY LING</strong>


“Might hurt just a little bit — just a little bit — but it’s going to help a lot!”

That is a line from a song that Sid the Science Kid and his computer-generated pals sang on a recent episode of Sid’s eponymous public television children’s show. In every episode, Sid has a “Super-duper-ooper-schmooper” big idea. Last week, on a show entitled “Getting a Shot: You Can Do It,” Sid’s big idea was that getting vaccinated is a good idea.

50 years ago, few people would have argued with that idea. Vaccines were seen as medical miracles. Along with antibiotics, they saved millions of lives. Common diseases like polio, measles, smallpox and diphtheria were greatly reduced if not completely eliminated. Childhood mortality fell dramatically.

People used to be able to grasp the positive impact that vaccines were having in their daily lives because they had first-hand experience with the diseases that they prevented. Mumps used to infect over a million children a year. Measles infected four million. In 1963, when the measles vaccine was introduced, there were few parents who didn’t appreciate it.

Now, insidiously, vaccines have become a victim of their own success. Like many public health instruments, vaccines work best when nothing actually happens. So as vaccines eliminated various diseases from our lives, the collective memory of why we needed them in the first place has faded.

That is why by 1998, when the British medical journal The Lancet published a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield linking autism to the MMR vaccine, a deep-rooted and irrational fear of vaccines had gained ground in the general population. The findings of Dr. Wakefield’s study were never replicated, even though dozens of studies tried. They couldn’t be, because Wakefield was essentially a fraud. He has been thoroughly and completely discredited. In several independent investigations, he has been accused of falsifying and manipulating data, of suppressing evidence that contradicted his claims and of accepting money from lawyers representing parents who wanted to prove that their children had been harmed by the MMR. 10 out of 12 of Wakefield’s research collaborators issued a retraction of the original paper.

Yet, the fear of vaccines persists. In fact, it has grown. People like Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher, people without any medical training, have abused their public platforms to spread misinformation about vaccines. Their message has been welcomed by a public that is increasingly distrustful of vaccine and science in general.

That distrust is so widespread that it exists even at UCI, a university whose own laboratories have originated various advances in vaccine technology. Last week, when UCI offered free H1N1 vaccines to anyone who fell into certain risk groups, many students failed to line up. People cited anecdotes to explain why they weren’t: a friend had gotten sick after getting the vaccine; some unnamed source warned that it was dangerous.

These students don’t seem to care that the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control have both found the H1N1 vaccine to be no less safe than the seasonal flu vaccine. It doesn’t matter that the injected form of the vaccine doesn’t even contain a live virus, making it impossible for anyone to catch H1N1 from the vaccine. It doesn’t matter that it takes 10 days for the vaccine to take effect, meaning that if someone gets sick right afterwards, it’s probably because they didn’t get vaccinated early enough. It doesn’t matter that even after millions of doses were administered, only one substantiated death, in a patient with underlying health issues, has resulted. The facts just don’t seem to matter.

More and more people are refusing vaccines, not just for H1N1 but also for other diseases. In California, the number of kindergartners entering school with vaccine exemption has more than doubled since 1997. The pattern is repeated across the nation. On Vashon Island, a well-heeled suburb of Seattle, an astounding 20 percent of parents have opted out of vaccines for their children.

These people aren’t crazy. They certainly aren’t stupid, or uneducated or delusional. They aren’t members of a fringe group. They are perfectly normal and, for the most part, intelligent people. That’s what makes this phenomenon so disturbing.

People have the right to decide what they put into their bodies. But it’s important to remember that vaccination is a personal decision with public implications. One person’s decision to skip vaccination, when repeated on a larger level, compromises the effectiveness of vaccinations for everyone else. In 2008, a measles outbreak spread across 15 states. In August of that year, as the outbreak continues, a CDC report found that of the 131 infected patients, only 19 had been immunized. That outbreak was a warning shot. If the current trend against immunization continues, diseases that no one has seen for years will be back with serious consequences for public health. So please, get vaccinated. Or if you don’t for whatever reason, don’t spread misinformation because unfortunately that is one disease against which no vaccine has yet been developed.

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