February 12, 2019 Michelle Kinney
The first documented example of the effectiveness of vaccines occurred in the 18th century, when Dr. Edward Jenner inoculated a boy with smallpox lesions from a milkmaid. When he later infected the boy with smallpox, he survived. Since this landmark event, smallpox has been eradicated due to generations of children being vaccinated. Similarly, measles, malaria, and polio have been significantly reduced in the global population. Yet, what has led to the modern fear of vaccines? Tragically, two studies radically changed people’s perception of vaccines through fear and false science. In 1992, the Immunization Awareness Society in New Zealand poorly conducted a study that concluded that unvaccinated children were healthier than vaccinated children.2 In 1998, a discredited scientist correlated the MMR vaccine with autism, striking fear in parents. Despite the immediate backlash and scientific counterarguments and studies, the public responded with fear and withdrawal from vaccinating their children, claiming personal or religious choice. Since then, the rate of vaccination has declined, and the number of children unvaccinated for preventable diseases has quadrupled from 2001, as reported by the CDC in January of 2018.3 This public response has come with severe consequences, including the measles outbreak in Disneyland in 2015 and epidemic in Europe in 2018.
But what are vaccines anyway? Vaccines help develop active immunity in the body by imitating a disease in either a weakened or inactive form. They are intended to expose the immune system to the disease’s biological markers, allowing it to be identified, and to create corresponding antibodies without the disease’s harmful symptoms. Therefore, the next time the person is exposed to the disease, they fight the infection faster and prevent it from spreading. The ultimate goal of vaccines is to reduce the exposure and spread of the disease to the point of eradication.
However, the presence of vulnerable persons has led to outbreaks, as seen in the twenty-first century. The CDC reported that 90% of children who died because of the flu in 2013 were unvaccinated. In the vaccination season of 2011 to 2012, about 52% of eligible children were vaccinated, and 171 children died from influenza. The pattern of disease in unvaccinated children has continued throughout the 2010s.
In 2015, about 150 contracted measles after visiting Disneyland in Orange County, California. Disneyland is the perfect place for disease contamination - thousands of people with different cultures (and germs!) visit everyday. According to the CDC, someone overseas was contaminated and exposed thousands by being in the vicinity of the park. Measles then spread to US citizens, who exposed it to their own communities. Unsurprisingly, 82% of affected patients were not vaccinated and vulnerable to illness. Similarly, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recorded 33,000 measles infections in the European Union since 2016, a debilitating number compared to previous years. European doctors blame staunch anti-vaxxers, or people against vaccines, who avoid doctor check-ups and are firmly superstitious of modern medicine. The increased use of media promotes conspiracy theories and myths about vaccines.
How can we as a society help? It begins with vaccinating yourself and your family. Each unvaccinated person makes society more vulnerable. Despite being in the modern, developed world with endless technology and scientific discovery, communities still struggle with common, nearly-eradicated diseases. While small-pox was eliminated nearly forty years ago, the rise of a similar pox virus, monkeypox, threatens the complacency of society in reducing small-pox vaccines. Regardless of all the scientific community’s efforts in vaccine development, it ultimately depends on the people carrying out their civic duty.