An Outbreak of Awkwardness

Do you know what’s really, really awkward? People dying of easily preventable diseases. I’m not talking about third world countries here, where a lack of access to basic sanitation and medical care means vulnerable people succumb to simple ailments like diarrhoea. I’m talking about the developed world, the land of segways and shopping malls, where having to get up to change the channel on your TV is a major inconvenience, right up there with washing your own dishes and blankets that don’t have sleeves. This is a place where medical science works miracles on a daily basis, curing and preventing diseases that only decades ago struck fear into the hearts of families everywhere. A veritable Magic Kingdom of progress, if you will…yeah, you see where I’m going with this.

Right now, in the 21st century, in one of the world’s most privileged and affluent regions, the most vulnerable members of our society are under threat from a measles outbreak. Measles. A disease that was once responsible for 48,000 hospitalizations in the US every year, and 500 deaths. A disease that should have been banished to the history books, alongside the consumption, feminine hysteria and the plague. And like the poor innocents who perished as the Black Death swept through Europe, we are powerless to stop it, our only hope being to avoid communal gathering places like schools, theatres and theme parks until the whole thing has blown over. Except that’s bollocks, of course, we’ve had the power to stop it all along. Certain members of our society, through ignorance, selfishness and fear, have simply chosen not to do so.

Vaccination is old technology. Even before its introduction to Europe in the early 18th century, the Ottomans were performing primitive inoculations by inserting fresh pus from a smallpox patient into an open wound. In 1721, the Reverend Cotton Mather recommended widespread inoculation to the citizens of Boston to combat a smallpox epidemic. This was a risky enterprise, using unsterilized equipment and live virus, and it carried around a 2% mortality rate. But when compared to the 15-20% fatality rate of naturally contracted smallpox, which in the Boston epidemic affected half the population of the city, many volunteers were willing to play those odds. Edward Jenner’s famous 1796 discovery that the non-lethal cowpox virus could prevent it’s deadlier relation made vaccination a widespread practice across England, and by 1800 the vaccine had made its way across the pond, endorsed by none other than Thomas Jefferson. By 1855 Massachusetts had passed the first US law mandating smallpox vaccination for schoolchildren.

As the great scientists of the 19th century peered through their microscopes and identified the tiny organisms causing deadly epidemics, hope rose that mankind could win the war against infectious disease. By 1924 French scientists were vaccinating children against TB, a disease responsible for 25% of all fatalities in the previous century. In 1953 there were 35000 cases of Polio in the US, an untreatable illness that can cause muscle paralysis, leaving some children unable to walk or even breathe without assistance. The oral polio vaccine was licensed 1957, and by 1961 the annual case total had fallen to 161. In 1980, the WHO declared that smallpox, the scourge that had started it all, had been eradicated worldwide through vaccination.

Prior to the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, the United States saw hundreds of thousands of infections per year. Individuals without immunity who come into contact with an infected person have a 90% chance of contracting the virus. And yet a certain group of individuals seem to believe that with enough organic mung beans and echinacea, they are not at risk. Or even if they are, that the risk is less than the nebulous threat of ‘toxins’ used as preservatives in vaccines, or the debunked link between MMR and Autism. They make that decision not only for themselves and their families, but for those too young or too immunocompromised to be vaccinated, who rely on herd immunity to protect them. Herd immunity kicks in at around a 95% vaccination rate. Currently around 91% of children in the US are vaccinated; there are schools where rates are as low as 20%. Tales of wealthy parents paying doctors to falsify their vaccination records puts even these figures into doubt. It is not an exaggeration to call this a public health time bomb. And as the vaccine itself is only around 95% effective, if measles gains a foothold, even those sensible enough to have their vaccinations could still be at risk.

In common with the majority of people who oppose vaccinations, I am not a scientist or a medical professional. I have only a basic understanding of the mechanisms of the human immune system. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence of vaccinations causing widespread harm to children that goes beyond mild and temporary discomfort. With any medical treatment, there will be a few unfortunate individuals who suffer adverse reactions; check the warning label on any product in your medicine cabinet . These instances are devastating for those involved, in the same way that a fatal car accident has a horrific impact upon the family of the deceased. We gasp and feel a pang of anxiety when we read about it in the paper. But we still get in our cars and drive to work the next day, safe in the knowledge that statistically, it probably won’t be us. Undoubtedly, there have been some children who have been injured by receiving vaccinations, and each of these cases is a tragedy, worthy of investigation so that the scientific community can continue to improve the safety of these procedures. But the number of reported cases is incredibly tiny. The now discredited paper by Andrew Wakefield published in British medical journal The Lancet, which kicked off the entire MMR autism controversy, was based on case studies of twelve children. Yes, your read that correctly, twelve out of the thousands of children in the UK who receive the MMR vaccine every year. And the total number of cases of autism worldwide proven to have been caused by the MMR vaccine? One – ish. An Italian court judgement in 2012 did find in favour of the parents of a 15 month old boy, but the legal team relied heavily upon Wakefield’s Lancet article and the decision remains under appeal.

So why do these parents continue to refuse to vaccinate their children, even as the outbreak spreads and, seventeen years after the Lancet article, the scientific community continue to state that vaccination is safe? There is a certain elitism at play here; those that follow public health mandates are ‘sheep’, pawns of the government and Big Pharma, who will believe anything that advertising and over fifty years worth of evidence tells them. Vaccine manufacturers are only in it for the money, with no concern for our children’s safety; whereas I’m sure their homoeopath and organic grocer provide their goods and services entirely free of charge. Americans are particularly at risk due to their inherent distrust of their own government, scientific fact, or anyone who tries to tell them what to do and is not a celebrity. Also a factor is that vaccination has no visible, immediate benefits, none of the instant gratification that the modern world teaches us to expect. To be protected against a disease that has not posed a threat in our lifetimes, when we have never seen an actual case or witnessed the suffering it causes, does not seem that important. We are all content to be complacent, until the moment the wolf is at the door. Perhaps this explains why affluent Americans are reluctant to administer a single injection to their children, a procedure that has overwhelmingly been proven safe, but will happily subject themselves to all manner of plastic surgeries despite the proven risks of general anaesthesia and hospital acquired infections.

We can ponder forever the reasoning, the twisted logic of people who exercise their ‘right to choose’ in the face of all available evidence, and to the detriment of themselves and everyone around them. Such is their belief that the minority must have the upper hand, that our arguments will only serve to strengthen their resolve. Governments across the world could do more to enforce vaccination, but as long as they wealthy and powerful are amongst the naysayers they will be too fearful to do so. All we can do is watch the news, watch the number of cases climb, and watch the needless suffering that ensues.