I try very hard not to hate. Hate is an emotion that diminishes the person who engages in it, I have always believed that. Still there are a few people that I just can’t help but hate and one of them is Andrew Wakefield the former doctor who in 1998 started the fervor over vaccinations by claiming there was a link between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of autism.
His fraudulent claims combined with a condition that many parents dread for their children blew up into more than just a question of the connection of a vaccine to autism (of which there is exactly none, there has never been any evidence to support this claim and there still is not) and put the fear of vaccines into the public in general.
As a result we are starting to see the problems that failing to have the high level of immunization that has protected whole populations of decades. The Washington Post is reporting today that since the start of this year to the end of March there have been 4,937 cases of measles reported in France. That compares to 5,090 for all of last year.
This is what you would call a threshold event. When the number of vaccinated people, mostly children in this case, falls below a certain level, we lose what is called “herd immunity”. It means that there are not only enough people who can get the disease but that there are enough vulnerable that it spreads widely. Previously if an unvaccinated person contracted measles it was unlikely that they would run into people in the normal course of the sickness who could contract the disease from them. This appears to no longer be true.
To have herd immunity you have to have a vaccination rate somewhere north of 90%. At that point you get the benefits of the group immunization and even those who are not immunized are less likely to be exposed and contract a particular disease. Since the fraud Wakefield’s so called work was announce vaccination rates in Europe have been falling. There are places in England which have a vaccination rate of under 50%.
It might be easy, in the face of something as potentially devastating as sever autism (there are levels of it and while it always makes life more difficult for families and individuals being on the autism spectrum is not an automatically crippling thing), to forget that measles is a potentially devastating itself. About 1 in 15 kids who contract measles will have complications ranging from pneumonia to seizures to encephalitis.
These complications can damage and cripple a child, depending on the severity and they are completely avoidable with a simple vaccination. Mumps has similar complications but also can lead to loss of hearing or sterility. Rubella is not as bad for the individual, but if a woman contracts it while pregnant it can lead to serious birth defects for the unborn fetus.
As bad as these outbreaks are for the people of Europe it is not the only problem with their vaccine phobia. When an outbreak occurs it can spread. We have seen instances of measles being brought back to Africa and the United States from unvaccinated children who were exposed while in Europe.
For me there is more than a little anger for those who choose not vaccinate their children. It does not take very much research to find that A) vaccines are safe for the vast majority of people who receive them and B) that the links between autism and vaccines were never real in the first place and finally C) that the statistical risks of not being vaccinated are much higher than the risks associated with the very rare instances where there is harm from a vaccine.
That said, I also understand how when a report comes out that claims the most common kind of vaccine, the MMR vaccine, has a direct link to autism that people tend to trust the doctors involved and don’t look at things like sample size (incredibly small in Wakefield’s fraudulent study), or methodology or even if the doctor has a financial interest in, oh say a new measles vaccine, as Wakefield did.
Science always takes time. When someone makes a claim about some fact or drug or disease it is usually after some period of study. It then takes time to try to reproduce the results for confirmation. It actually takes longer to disprove a position as more studies and tests have to be performed to be sure that the evidence presented is false.
With a claim as scary and inflammatory as a link between a very common vaccination drug and autism (with no claim of the mechanism, just a claim of linkage in outcome) it is easy to see how parents would be nervous about vaccination and how the position would get more and more entrenched as the time between the claim and the disproving of it wore on.
It also did not help that well meaning idiots like Kathy McCarthy and former Rep. David Weldon (both of whom are related to autism spectrum kids) took to the air ways to tell their subjective impressions of the children in their lives having a vaccination and then exhibiting autism spectrum symptoms. I completely understand how folks like that want to latch on to something to blame for the condition of these children and the challenges that being on the autism spectrum will cause them. However they are not scientists and their observations are completely subjective and anecdotal.
In the end the combination of the wild and unsubstantiated claims of Andrew Wakefield and the public figures pushing a meme they wanted to believe has done incalculable damage. At the present rate there may be more than 20,000 cases of measles in France this year alone. At a complication rate of 1 in 15 that means that 1,333, mostly children, will have some kind of complication from this. That is just in France and that is just for 2011.
Childhood diseases used to claim and maim tens of thousands of children a year. Part of the reason that both my parents came from families with 13 children who lived to adulthood is that previously many of them would have died from these kinds of diseases. They were lucky enough to live in a time where medicine was available to shield them from it.
Because of the evil of one greedy and venial man the specter of childhood illness is once again haunting Europe and is probably coming to these shores as well. It will never be as bad as it was in my grandparents generation, but I suspect that will be cold comfort for the families of children who die or have permanent complications from a disease they did not have to get, if only we were a little more science literate and there were a few less frauds in the world.
The floor is yours.