With the recent passing away of baby Riley John Hughes on Tuesday 17 March 2015, the vaccination debate has returned to the forefront of the media. Riley’s is the first recorded death from whooping cough in Western Australia since 2011 and has once again highlighted the dangers of decreasing vaccination levels.
The World Health Organisation defines immunization as:
“the process whereby a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease, typically by the administration of a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the body’s own immune system to protect the person against subsequent infection or disease.”
This means that an agent, either an inactive or partially active form of the disease, is injected into the body, stimulating the immune system into building up resistance. This means that if the person contracts the fully fledged disease he or she will be much better protected. The history of this method goes back over a thousand years to when the Brahmin population in India fought smallpox. Since then, countries and cultures all over the world have used and developed a variety of methods of inoculation. And, of course, smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1980 after a global immunisation campaign.
Today, one of the most documented cases of a vaccination success is that of poliomyelitis, known as polio. Polio is a highly infectious disease which affects the central nervous system and can lead to paralysis. In the early 20th century, polio became endemic among children in Europe and the USA until 1955 when a safe and effective vaccine was developed. This resulted in the recorded cases of polio dropping from 350,000 in 1988 to 416 in 2013. The three countries where polio is still endemic are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
So, vaccination is a method which has been used throughout a long stretch of history and clearly has been successful with respect to polio and smallpox. So why are some of these diseases still causing deaths and what are the arguments against vaccinating?
One of the most vehement anti vaccination efforts was based on a 1998 paper in The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, which suggested a link between the combined measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The paper was retracted in 2010 with The Lancet admitting the paper contained incorrect information and the authors were found guilty of “ethical violations, and scientific misrepresentation.” This article caused a significant drop in MMR vaccinations and, despite the retraction five years ago, it is still cited as evidence against immunisation.
Next to Autism, other potential side effects are also cited including brain damage, convulsions and even death. However, severe conditions are rarely linked to vaccinations and when they are it is because the vaccination activates an underlying condition. Furthermore, it is generally acknowledged that vaccinating carries some risks: swelling, fevers and milder versions of the disease’s symptoms both occur relatively regularly and are not unexpected.
But then it has never been presented as a perfect solution. It is simply a better option, we only have to look at the devastation wrought by epidemics such as polio.
There are many reasons why people refuse vaccinations for themselves and their children, such as religious convictions and the supposed connection between vaccines and autism. I am an advocate for freedom of expression and free choice and do not believe in forcing any medical treatment on anyone: autonomy over one’s own body should always be protected. However, in the case of immunising children, the consequences can be far reaching, affecting not only the individual but any vulnerable people with whom they come into contact. Vaccinations do not protect everyone to the same extent and people who have had severe allergic reactions to previous vaccination are advised not to have subsequent ones’ administered, taking this into account one can see how people electing not to get vaccinated puts others at risk. Another example of this is children who are too young to receive vaccinations; such as Riley who could not have yet had the whooping cough vaccine as he was not yet two months old.
We all have the right and the obligation to question the information with which we are presented. People should feel completely comfortable with expressing doubts or concerns over any suggested medical treatments, including vaccinations. We spend our lives weighing the risks and benefits, pros and cons, using the information provided to us. Surely, in the case of immunisation, the benefits far outweigh the risks? And what do we do, as a society, when the neglecting of the facts causes children to die?
Sources and Further Reading:
SBS’s documentary on the growing trend of vaccine hesitancy
The CDC discusses the potential consequences of ceasing vaccinations
World Health Organisation examines the concept of vaccination
Voices for Vaccines discusses leaving the anti-vaccination movement
Australian Department of Health and Ageing thoroughly examines anti-vaccination arguments
The Lancet considers vaccines activating autoimmune diseases
Patient on the whooping cough vaccination
The Huffington Post examines anti-vaccination arguments
The NHS considers potential side-effects caused by vaccinations
The Conversation argues cutting off welfare is not the key to improve vaccination levels
World Health Organisation on Smallpox