SiS is proud to feature the winners of the "2014 Driskill Graduate Program in the Life Sciences (DGP) Science and Society Class Distinction Award." Written as part of a course on science and society, these papers were chosen by DGP faculty and SiS staff to be published in HELIX. This month, we present the following piece by PhD student Kelly McKinnon.
Vaccines do not cause autism. This has been proven time and time again in many scientific studies dating as far back as the late 1990s and as recent as June of this year. In fact, the US Federal Court has ruled three times (Hazlehurst, Snyder and Cedillo) against any link between autism and the MMR vaccine and the preservative Thimerosal.
Yet, the public debate is still alive and thriving. You see it everywhere: television shows, blogs, magazines and even news articles – all promoting the idea that vaccines are bad. Celebrities speak out against vaccines and against the scientific community, and the general public listens. The anti-vaccine movement has led to many lawsuits, as well as prompted threats and harassment against those scientists who oppose it. It has caused many worried parents to choose not to vaccinate their children. This has led to a very dangerous health situation. In reality, vaccine skepticism is the real public health threat, not the vaccines themselves.
The anti-vaccine movement began more than 15 years ago, when a prominent scientific journal in the U.K., called The Lancet, published a study by Andrew Wakefield, who claimed to have found evidence that the MMR vaccine caused autism. He claimed the vaccine irritated the intestines, which then let toxins into the bloodstream where they traveled to the brain, causing autism.
The public did not realize, at the time, that Wakefield had been paid more than £400,000 by lawyers, who were seeking evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers, or that Wakefield had applied for patents on a vaccine that was a rival of the current MMR vaccine. The public did not know that patient data was fixed and manipulated to create the appearance of a link that was not there, and that nearly all of the coauthors retracted the autism implication of their work, or that The Lancet would eventually retract the article. They did not know that Wakefield would be charged with fraud and lose his medical license.
All of this would come to light after British investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed the scandal in an in-depth piece published by The Sunday Times in 2004.
Back in 1998, when the study was released, all the general public heard was that vaccines were bad, prompting parents to not vaccinate their children, leading to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases throughout Europe.
This movement eventually spread to the United States, where another fear was arising concerning a different way in which vaccines could give you autism: they contained Thimerosal. Thimerosal is a preservative that has been used in vaccines since the 1930s, to help prevent bacterial contamination. It contains 50 percent mercury by weight.
In 1999, concerns over mercury in fish led to concerns over mercury in vaccines as well. Even though the neurotoxic methyl-mercury found in fish is not the same as the ethyl-mercury found in Thimerosal, and has never been shown to be toxic to humans, the US government demanded that it no longer be used in vaccines, as a precautionary measure.
Later studies showed that Thimerosal cannot reach toxic levels in the body, as it has a relatively short half life. And, there is no connection to autism from the use of Thimerosal, or the mercury that it contains. Perhaps the strongest evidence that Thimerosal does not cause autism does not come from the numerous published studies, but rather from the fact that since 2001, Thimerosal has not been used in vaccines (with the exception of some flu vaccines) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, yet, the incidence of autism has not gone down. It has actually continued increasing.
Since Thimerosal is no longer commonly used in vaccines, and the Federal Court and numerous scientific studies have disproved any link between Thimerosal and autism, the arguments of the anti-vaccine movement are starting to evolve.
Movements such as “Green Our Vaccines” claim there are various other toxins in our vaccines that are poisoning us. Some think vaccines for preventable cancer-causing STDs, such as the HPV vaccine, will cause their daughters to become promiscuous. Some still say vaccines cause autism, by overloading the child’s immune system. Others argue that Big Pharma and the government are conspiring against us, and that vaccine producers are paying off scientists. Paradoxically, Andrew Wakefield, the one who started the anti-vaccine movement, was the scientist found to have financial conflicts of interest.
So, what effect is the anti-vaccine movement having on public health? There have been measles outbreaks all throughout Europe and the United States. Pertussis outbreaks are not uncommon anymore. Personal and religious vaccine exemptions are increasing, and less children are being vaccinated, setting the stage for epidemics of diseases that were mostly wiped out in the U.S. If this occurs, it will not only affect those who chose not to vaccinate their children. Since no vaccine is 100 percent effective, many people who have been vaccinated will also get ill. Those who are medically unable to be vaccinated (due to compromised immune systems or severe allergies), who normally rely on herd immunity, will no longer be protected. The health costs of an epidemic would be astronomical, and it is very likely that many people would die.
Each year, millions of deaths occur globally in children under the age of five due to infectious disease, many of which are preventable with existing vaccines. How bad does it have to get before people will see the dangers of the anti-vaccine movement? Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements in public health history. We no longer have to worry about smallpox, polio, rubella, or other diseases that devastated the generations before us. Most people have never experienced the kind of devastation these diseases can cause, which allows us the luxury of questioning whether or not to vaccinate.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the dangers of these diseases far outweigh any dangers associated with the vaccines. Is the reemergence of previously eradicated diseases and a costly public health crisis what it will take for the general public to realize the importance of vaccination and herd immunity? The thought of that is definitely scarier than the vaccines themselves. While we have accomplished a huge public health achievement with the development of vaccines, the challenge now will be to maintain public support when the threat of disease is no longer as obvious.