As a Community Health Psychologist working with small children (ages 2-9), parents often asked me about my views on childhood vaccines. You can be sure that today, as a Clinical Epidemiologist and Medical Research Scientist, I am asked the same questions even more often. I find that, sadly, the average person asking about vaccines fall into one category: anti-vaccine looking for agreement. Unfortunately, I have yet to be able to offer any. It’s not that I know everything, but as a medical scientist, I have read the arguments on both sides, I have reviewed the latest studies, examined the biostatistics (most people fail to understand how statistical association works, let alone multiple regression biostatistics), and objectively weighed the evidence. And I have read and reviewed the evidence against vaccines, which is virtually nonexistent, albeit with the exception of emotionally charged anecdotal stories that often prove to be just that: stories. Case in point, Jenny McCarthy, whose son she now admits never had autism. She continues to rail against vaccines and still claims that her son had become autistic from the MMR. And the anti-vaccine folks continue to rally around her. When you obtain your child’s healthcare advice from a B-movie star and former playboy bunny, you are playing right into the hands of the anti-vaccine camps. And into Darwin’s hands as well. Since vaccines were first discovered in China some 1,200 years ago to treat Smallpox, there have been those who do not comprehend the basic principles of vaccination and out of ignorance, criticize against the process. When Edward Jenner demonstrated how his “Cowpox” vaccine could drastically reduce Smallpox in 1796, there were a few who decried the act as “Ungodly” and demanded an end to vaccines.
In 1885, Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine made an unimaginable impact on human disease. Yet even at the dawn of bacteriology, when scientific developments rapidly followed, doctors and health officials had to battle ignorance and superstition from those claiming “Miasma” or gases caused disease. Progress marched on, and Antitoxins and vaccines against diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, cholera, plague, typhoid, and tuberculosis, claiming hundred’s of thousand’s of children’s lives were developed through the 1930s.
Childhood diseases, once eradicated in the US or very nearly so have begun to emerge once again, and have begun to claim children’s lives. The reason is almost completely the blame of a charlatan and “researcher” by the name of Andrew Wakefield.
Wakefield was a British medical doctor who, along with colleagues, submitted a paper to the medical journal The Lancet in 1998, reporting a statistical link between the MMR vaccine and the appearance of autism and bowel disease. That is hardly the end of the story, but rather, just the beginning. The first basic logical rule of research is the ability for other researchers to reproduce your findings. If I replicate your experiment, then I should be able to replicate your findings. If I cannot, then I have to call into question either your results, or your process. Other researchers, unable to reproduce Wakefield’s findings or even confirm his hypothesis of an association between the MMR vaccines and autism began to question the research.
In 2004, an investigation by the Sunday Times identified undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part, and by then most of his co-authors withdrew their support for the study results. As you might imagine, this sparked a great deal of interest within the British General Medical Council, who conducted an inquiry into the allegations of misconduct against Wakefield and two of his former researchers. The investigation centered on numerous findings, including the children with autism were subjected to unnecessary invasive medical procedures including colonoscopy and lumbar puncture, and further, that Wakefield acted without the required ethical approval from an institutional review board or IRB. January 2010, the British General Medical Council found three dozen charges proved against Wakefield and his co-conspirators, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of development and mentally challenged children.
According to the panel, Wakefield had “Failed in his duties as a responsible consultant” acting against both the best interest of his patients, and had performed with “dishonesty and irresponsibility” in the conducting of his research. Wakefield had been paid and paid handsomely to “discover” what he discovered: that the current vaccine was “unsafe.” How handsomely you might ask? According to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Wakefield was paid £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses. Over $700,000 US dollars.
The Lancet immediately issued a full retraction of the original publication on the basis of these findings, noting that elements of the manuscript had been clearly falsified. As a result, Andrew Wakefield was removed from the Medical Register in May 2010, for identifying deliberate falsifications in research and is barred from practicing medicine in the UK. Sadly, the damage had already been done. Armchair scientists and those embracing an “anti-medicine” bent had rallied around the results and were willing to ignore the findings of fraud.
Further investigation and testimony showed that Wakefield had planned to launch a venture on the back of an MMR vaccination scare that would profit from new medical tests and “litigation driven testing.” Lawyers had decided that suing pharmaceutical companies for damages would be lucrative, but only with medical support. Finally, in November 2011, a report in the British Medical Journal revealed the original raw data of Wakefield’s study, indicating that Wakefield’s claims were patently false; children in his research did not have Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and Wakefield knew it.
Even today Wakefield’s study and his now disproved claim that the MMR vaccine might cause autism has directly led to a significant decline in vaccination rates in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland. As a result, the incidence rates of measles and mumps have dramatically increased, resulting in serious illness and even fatalities. Wakefield has continued to defend his research and conclusions, saying there was no fraud, hoax or profit motive despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So now, in 2014, what are we to make of this anti-vaccine scare?
Unless you understand how immunity works, have even a basic microbiology understanding, and understand statistical association, get your healthcare from actual health scientists and physicians rather than from reality TV starlets.
If you want to educate yourself, and you should, ignore TV talk shows, popular media, and talk radio hosts, and read up on the science from peer-reviewed relevant journals. For example, if a journal of culinary arts makes a proclamation on medicine, you should be naturally suspicious. There are significant advantages to the peer-review process, including establishing the legitimacy of research based upon the expert information of different specialists in the field. Peer review provides significant criticism with the intention that scientists can revise and enhance their papers before Publication for accuracy and clarity. Peer review enables Journal editors to select the most important research findings for publication in their journals, based upon the subject, and independent reviews of an expert group. Finally, the peer review process ensures that the research study is comprehended and acknowledged by the majority of researchers in that field.
Be suspicious of claims made by non-researchers, or arguments to emotion based on ignorance and opinion. For example if someone says that if vaccines worked no one would get the disease. Or, if they try to convince you that vaccines cause this issue or that issue, ask for some evidence. By evidence I am not talking about a paper published in a non-peer reviewed online journal. I am talking about legitimate science. Many claims are made by ignorant persons as to nonessential childhood vaccines, and that children do not need them as their “natural” or “Organic” systems will “learn” to combat the disease. If this were true, humanity would have “naturally learned” to combat all such diseases millennia ago.
Homeopathy and naturopathic treatments are unregulated, not because they are “alternative medical treatments” but because they are not actual medicine. Keep this in mind when one tells you that adding a single drop of some flower oil to a gallon of distilled water, or by applying a certain colored crystal to your child’s head you can prevent disease.
We should always want the best for our children. The chances of a child becoming ill from a vaccine are minute (approx. 0.002) compared to the same child becoming ill, or worse, from an infectious disease. To better understand the risks, speak candidly to your pediatrician. Ask the hard questions, demand answers. Remember, just because you can find it on the internet, doesn’t make it true.