The history of vaccines and the facts of the anti-vax movement

In the first year of a biology bachelor’s’ degree, or even before, the tale of Edward Jenner and his miraculous vaccination discovery is told. The story goes that Jenner used the first vaccine in 1796, inoculating a young boy with cowpox to give him protection against smallpox. As they are very similar viruses, the method worked and the boy survived the process.

In truth, a variation of inoculation was already being done in England after Lady Mary Wortley had observed it being carried out in Constantinople in 1721. How long the process had been carried out before that by the Ottoman Empire is unknown. In any case, the practice has been known about and used to varying degrees of success for over 297 years.

Due to successful vaccination campaigns, smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980. Then in 1988, the World Health Organisation (WHO), United National Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Rotary Foundation set their sights on a new aim – the eradication of Poliomyelitis. The campaign has been very successful, with only 22 cases diagnosed in 2017, down from 350,000 cases in 1988.

There are also a number of other highly effective vaccines, including the MMR vaccine against Measles, Mumps and Rubella. MMR is roughly 97% effective at preventing measles when administered twice. If only one dose is given, it is roughly 93% effective.

In addition to being highly effective in protecting the vaccinated person against the disease, eradication campaigns work using a principle known as ‘herd immunity’. This process works to protect those who are too old or too young to have the vaccine or those that have a compromised immune system. If the people surrounding them are immunised, the susceptible party cannot be passed the bug. Eradication is still achievable and provides extra protection for those that need it most.

Unfortunately, the most difficult obstacle currently facing current vaccination campaigns is not scientific, it is people’s attitudes. In order to prevent outbreaks of a disease, such as measles, at least 95 per cent of the population must be vaccinated. Whether due to circumstances such as a lack of economic means to see a doctor and get vaccinated or a growing attitude against vaccines (so-called ‘anti-vaxxers’), the current vaccination coverage in Europe is only 70 per cent. This is a bleak result and Europe is now in the midst of a measles outbreak, with 41,000 recorded cases in the first half of 2018 alone.

The situation in Europe is not unique. Recent statistics released by the US federal health service showed that the percentage of children under two who had not had any vaccinations had quadrupled in recent years. Measles had technically been eliminated from the US, meaning that no new cases originate from within the country.

However, in the modern day with travel opportunities as common as they are, outbreaks can easily occur when an unvaccinated person brings the disease back from another country. The current outbreak in Brooklyn is believed to have been caused by an unvaccinated child travelling to an area of Israel that is undergoing its own outbreak. Minnesota is also suffering the state’s worst measles outbreak in decades. These are all completely preventable, unnecessary occurrences.

After nearly three centuries of vaccinations, what is causing the practice to come under such scrutiny, suspicion and criticism? Many believe that the igniting spark of the current anti-vaccination movement occurred in 1998. A former physician, Andrew Wakefield, published a paper that claimed there was a link between MMR vaccine and autism. In the following months and years, it was realised that Wakefield had a patent for an alternative measles vaccine leading to a clear conflict of interests. He was struck off the UK medical register for his misconduct and plenty of subsequent research has found no link between vaccines and autism. Despite this, many have never forgotten the accusations and still refuse to vaccinate their children, despite the mound of evidence against the claims.

The anti-vaccination campaign is by no means slowing down in light of the new outbreaks. Social media has become a powerful tool for the anti-vaxxers, with Facebook groups and pages to preach, what they are convinced, is the truth. The scientists on the other side of the argument are not taking very kindly to this, as may be expected. However, the eye-rolling or condescending approach is not the way forward. There are places, such as West Virginia and Mississippi, that do not allow non-medical vaccine exemptions. Legally, a child must be vaccinated. Although this raises the number of children being vaccinated, it does not address the problems with the anti-vax attitude. Until this is reversed with education, those who cannot have vaccines themselves are at the mercy of the anti-vaxxers.

Vaccines were once the new miracle of medicine (even though they had been carried out for a while in non-British colonial countries). When antibiotics came along, vaccination took a back seat. Now, however, as the antibiotic resistance crisis marches forward, scientists are desperate to renew the life of the old ‘miracle’. Before vaccination can fulfil its potential, however, the attitudes towards the procedure must be remedied. Hopefully, this could put a halt to the current outbreaks of preventable diseases and move vital eradication campaigns onwards.

Image Credit: Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana via Flickr

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