Scitech  To vaccinate or not?

How public misinterpretation of science is harmful to society

The question of whether or not to vaccinate has recently been a contentious subject in the realm of popular science. In the realm of public discourse, certain individuals have been arguing the necessity of vaccinations for children.

A recent measles outbreak in the Chilliwack community in British Columbia brings this issue to the forefront of societal discourse. There were two confirmed cases at a school in Chilliwack, along with over 100 suspected cases in the surrounding community over the past year, endangering populations extending to all areas of Fraser Valley East region.

This outbreak has been attributed to a low level of immunization in public schools. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Victoria Lee, a spokeswoman for the Fraser Health Authority, stated that, “In the East Fraser region we have immunization rates of 60 to 70 per cent, but in some of the schools we are examining, the immunization rates are as low as 0 per cent.”

The low levels of immunization have been associated with the ideological beliefs of the ultra-orthodox Protestant community. Pastors in this community have expressed their convictions that vaccines are an attempt to pervade the will of God.

The province has made arrangements for the distribution of the measles vaccine to general practitioners and pharmacies in the region as well as set up specialized clinics around the vulnerable regions.

The Public Health Agency of Canada declared Canada free of endemic measles as of 1998, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends vaccination against 16 vaccine-preventable diseases for children. The Chilliwack outbreak, similar to other outbreaks since 1998, has been attributed to the importation of the virus from other endemic regions, which was then aggravated by the extremely low levels of immunization within the community.

Most infectious diseases need 85 per cent of the population to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity,” which is the state of immunity where a percentage of the population has been immunized to safeguard those who do not have immunity against the infection. For example, malaria is highly contagious and requires 90 per cent of the population to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Malaria is an airborne disease that can cause pneumonia, brain damage, deafness, blindness, serious complications for pregnant women, and even death. The best prevention is two doses of the vaccine, which has been freely available to all Canadians born after 1957.

Aside from religious reasons, the recent trend against vaccines stems from the belief that vaccinating children results in more health concerns later in life. This trend stems from a discredited, but much-publicized study by Andrew Wakefield in a 1998 issue of the Lancet, which claimed to find a correlation between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children. In his article, Wakefield called vaccination a “moral issue,” facilitating a plunge in vaccination rates in the UK – and resulting in a resurgence of endemic measles.

Wakefield’s position was further endorsed by various public figures and celebrities, with the most recent being Jenny McCarthy. McCarthy’s widespread campaign began in 2007, when she announced that her son’s autism was a result of vaccinations. She published a book about her own experience dealing with her son’s autism, Louder Than Words, A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, and participated in fundraisers, online chats, and other activities for non-profit organizations to help affected families with autism spectrum disorders. Yet her claim that the MMR vaccine was the cause of her son’s autism was rejected by medical practitioners and researchers, and has no basis in scientific evidence.

No scientist has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings. It was later discovered that he was paid to publish certain results of his study, and was subsequently charged with “dishonesty and irresponsibility” in conducting his research by the General Medical Council.

Despite his being discredited, Wakefield’s study introduced the idea of vaccination as being a “moral issue” into society. The scientific community is responsible for providing society with innovations that will further progress knowledge and contribute to the well-being of the public. Conversely, it is the duty of the socially-responsible citizen to critically analyze publicized beliefs and to be educated on an issue before taking a stance.