To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate: Why Is That Still a Question?
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate: That’s the big debate that many doctors and medical experts argue, well, really shouldn’t be a debate at all. “Simply put: Vaccines are safe, vaccines save lives, vaccines prevent suffering,” says Lori Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).
Yet, as outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles continue to crop up around the world, people are pointing their fingers at the anti-vaxx movement and increasing vaccine hesitancy among parents. When it comes to immunizations, do the benefits outweigh the risks? Do the anti-vaxxers have any valid points? Here’s a guide to the vaccine controversy — and why it’s more relevant now than ever.
To understand the arguments for and against vaccines, you first need to understand how they actually work. When you receive a vaccination, a weakened or inactive version of the virus is inserted into your body. As a response, your immune system creates the antibodies necessary to fight off the disease. These antibodies remain in your body so that if you ever come into contact with the actual virus, they already know how to fight off the bacteria.
Think of it like a drill or a practice run for your immune system. A vaccination “tricks” your body into thinking it’s being attacked so that it learns how to protect you in the event of a real infection.
The Best Way to Keep Children Safe
“Immunization has been one of the most successful and safest public health measures available to populations worldwide, with an unparalleled record of disease reduction and prevention,” says Freeman.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, vaccination prevents nearly 2.5 million deaths globally per year. While diseases like polio, diphtheria and mumps are incredibly rare, they still exist in other areas of the world — and the only way to prevent and protect against them is through childhood vaccines.
Vaccines Maintain ‘Herd Immunity’
Getting your child vaccinated protects more than just you and your family — it protects the community where you live, too, thanks to what’s known as herd immunity. Essentially, when a large proportion of the population is vaccinated, it prevents the spread of infectious disease, particularly to people who cannot be immunized for health reasons.
As Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City, explains, “Even if your child contracts one of these diseases and survives, they may still infect hundreds of others who are not as lucky, such as a baby who is too young to receive a vaccine, a person with immunosuppression or adults whose immunity has worn off.”
The Benefits Outweigh the (Very Minor) Risks
Like any drug or medical treatment, vaccinations can come with side effects. But the chances of complications are so slim, particularly compared to the risks associated with not vaccinating your child. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, told the news outlet, “You are 100 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to have a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine that protects you against measles.”
In that same regard, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports that you’re more likely to be injured by a vaccine-preventable disease than by the vaccine itself.
Why Does the Anti-Vaccine Movement Exist?
Despite there being so many benefits to vaccinations (and so many risks for those who opt out), there are still people who are vehemently against them. Known as anti-vaxxers, they may refuse vaccinations for a variety of different reasons from claiming that they’re filled with toxic chemicals to arguing that parents have the right to choose how to raise their children.
However, the most popular — and most misled — belief in the anti-vax world is that vaccines cause autism. “Most people engaged in this debate believe passionately in the correctness of their positions for or against vaccines, and believe the other side to be woefully misinformed, and possibly even dangerous to their children and families,” professor of sociology Jennifer Reich writes in her book “Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines.”
The Study That Started It All
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a report that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. Wakefield studied 12 children and allegedly found that, within one month of receiving the vaccine, eight of them developed autism along with other harmful side effects including inflammation of the brain.
The study went viral, frightening parents in Britain so much that the country’s vaccination rates dropped sharply from 92 percent to just around 80 percent, and the number of preventable disease outbreaks increased.
Wakefield’s Study Debunked
In the 20 years since Wakefield’s study was first published, his results have been disproven time and time (and time) again. In fact, the study was so riddled with errors and false findings, that it was accused of being fraudulent and was ultimately retracted from “The Lancet” medical journal.
“At this point, you've had 17 previous studies done in seven countries, three different continents, involving hundreds of thousands of children," Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNN. "I think it's fair to say a truth has emerged.”
The most recent study (the largest of its kind) found that the MMR vaccine did not increase the risk of autism in the 657,461 children involved.
Other Anti-Vaccine Myths
Besides the disproven link to autism, anti-vaxxers have raised other concerns about vaccinations throughout the years. One major fear is the risk of exposing children to aluminum, an ingredient that’s added to vaccines to make them more effective. However, researchers have found that the amount is so minimal that there’s actually more aluminum in breast milk or infant formula.
Another myth is that the current vaccine schedule set by the Center of Disease Control (CDC) of 25 shots before the age of two is, in the words of avid anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, “too much too soon.” But much like most of the vaccine-phobic beliefs, this idea that immunizations overload an infant’s immune system has been debunked by the CDC. Not only can babies handle a lot more antigens than people think, but the vaccine schedule is set based on the age at which the immunizations are most effective.
The Influence of Social Media
If science continues to disprove anti-vaxxers, then why isn’t the movement disappearing? Why are parents still choosing not to vaccinate their children? “Social media and fake news have really driven the anti-vaccine movement as people share non-proven, anecdotal information,” Dr. Hes explains, adding that “many people trust social media more than they trust doctors and science.”
Because people are so connected online, it’s easy to spread misinformation and influence parents with fear-mongering messages and uncensored or false facts. The more exposed they are to anti-vaccine content, the more ingrained it becomes in their brains, and the less likely they are to listen to the advice of doctors or medical experts.
Vaccination Rates Are Decreasing
While immunization rates in the United States are still high compared to other countries, the CDC reports that the percentage of unvaccinated children is on the rise. According to a recent study, the rate of children who hadn’t received vaccinations by the age of 24 months was up from 0.3 percent of those born in 2001 to 1.3 percent of those born in 2015.
That increase in unvaccinated kids may be due to anti-vaxx parents or, as Freeman explains, a lack of access and affordability. Regardless, it has led to a recent rash of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases (like measles and chickenpox) across the country.
A Global Public Health Crisis
Originally thought to have been eliminated from the United States in 2000, measles has recently made a comeback, with 22 states reporting cases of the disease to the CDC (as of April 19). The number continues to rise as more and more people are infected — in Washington, for instance, the disease spread so quickly and so out of control that the governor declared a state of emergency.
And it isn’t just the U.S. that’s experiencing the return of vaccine-preventable diseases. The worldwide measles outbreak has affected more than 40 countries since January, including Italy, Canada, Australia and England. As a result, the World Health Organization recently declared vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to public health for 2019.
Current Vaccination Laws in America
As of now, the federal government cannot require children to be vaccinated — instead, it’s up to individual states to make their own laws regarding immunization. All 50 states have vaccination requirements for children to attend school, but the exemptions vary from state to state.
Every state allows for medical exemptions, while 47 allow for religious exemptions. And just 17 allow “philosophical” exemptions, which means that parents can opt out of vaccinating their children based on personal beliefs. However, politicians in many states across the country are proposing legislation that would get rid of exemptions completely.
Capitol Hill Takes a Stand
Vaccination requirements may not be under the federal government’s control, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers in Washington from tackling the touchy topic. In March, 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger, the teen who went viral when he got vaccinated against the wishes of his anti-vaxx parents, testified at a Senate hearing on the importance of vaccines. He urged politicians to take action and better educate Americans.
At the same hearing, John Wiesman, Washington’s health secretary, stressed, “We need federal leadership for a national vaccination campaign spearheaded by CDC in partnership with states that counter the anti-vaccine messages … We have lost much ground; urgent action is necessary.”
The Fight Against Anti-Vaxxers Online
Politicians aren’t the only ones using their influence to implement change. Many social media platforms, including Pinterest, Facebook and YouTube, are setting new standards to prevent the spread of misinformation surrounding vaccines. Pinterest, for example, now censors search terms so that anti-vaxx messaging doesn’t appear in search results.
Even Amazon has joined the fight, pulling anti-vaccine content (including the popular documentary Vaxxed) from its site after Congressman Adam Schiff wrote a powerful letter to CEO Jeff Bezos saying, “Every online platform, including Amazon, must act responsibly and ensure that they do not contribute to this growing public-health catastrophe.”
Reaching a Resolution
While science clearly shows that vaccination is the only proven way to prevent some deadly diseases, it’s unlikely that pro-vaccine parents and anti-vaxxers will ever come to an agreement. After all, it’s an emotionally charged topic and one that concerns the safety of children, which is never taken lightly.
But it won’t stop doctors, lawmakers and medical experts, like Freeman, from continuing to push for mandatory vaccination and better education for parents. She explains, “As several states and counties across the nation are currently experiencing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease, it is highlighting that we cannot take the benefits of immunization for granted. Vaccines are the best defense against the threat of vaccine-preventable diseases.”