There has been a lot of discussion and controversy about vaccinations over the past few months. In February the Toronto Star issued - and later retracted - a sensational front-page investigation suggesting that vaccines were dangerous; the next month talk show host Jimmy Kimmel encouraged his audience to get their kids vaccinated and ribbed vaccine-averse parents with a mock PSA from exasperated doctors.
All this happened as a measles outbreak that began in December 2014 at Disneyland unfolded; 147 people became infected with the disease before the outbreak ended in April. Many who fell ill were not immunized against measles, and spurred in part by public concern over the episode California governor Jerry Brown introduced (and last week signed) a law requiring all school-attending children to be vaccinated for public safety.
The law does not require childhood vaccinations for every child - only those enrolled in California public schools. Parents are not required to vaccinate children who go to private home schools or are home-schooled.
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The move was widely praised by doctors but had many detractors. For example actor Jim Carrey took to social media to claim that Brown's "fascist" law would "poison more children with mercury and aluminum." During his rant Carrey used a photo of an autistic boy, without his family's permission, suggesting that his condition had been caused by vaccines; Carrey later apologized. With passionate advocates on both sides of the issue the debate is far from over.
Anti-Vaccination Efforts Why do some people doubt vaccine safety and efficacy? One reason is that their effectiveness cannot be proven on an individual basis. For example even people who are effectively vaccinated against a specific disease can still catch it (no vaccination is completely effective, and you might catch a different virus strain than the one you were inoculated against). This can lead people to doubt the usefulness of vaccines: if it's possible to catch a disease with or without a vaccination, what's the point?
But this position misses that fact that vaccinated people are far less likely to get the disease in the first place, and if they do happen to get it the symptoms will be less severe and more survivable.
A specific person's experience with a specific vaccine (or any other medicine) is not a valid measure of the overall effectiveness. However the institutions best equipped to conduct the necessary large-scale studies (i.e., governments and big drug companies) are also those that the public often distrusts, leading to conspiracy theories.
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Indeed one reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is the strong conspiracy theory element to it. Conspiracy theories are of course notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to disprove. Many people distrust the medical establishment and "Big Pharma" almost as much as they distrust the government. The assumption is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits.
Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book "American Conspiracy Theories," note bluntly that "Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease."
Andrea Kitta, an Associate Professor at East Carolina University and author of "Vaccinations and Public Concern in History," notes that "The content of vaccines, especially in the case of preservatives, is a widely debated issue. Ingredients such as thimerosal, formaldehyde, mercury, and others, are frequently linked [in anti-vaccination claims] to the causation of diseases... All of these ingredients, regardless of whether or not they have been linked to an actual disease, are to blame because they are considered not ‘natural'."
Many of the claims about "natural" versus "unnatural" chemicals used in vaccines have been thoroughly debunked. A USA Today article notes, for example, that "Vaccines have never contained methyl mercury, the toxic metal that can cause brain damage" and that while it's true that vaccines contain aluminum, "babies get far more aluminum from food, including breast milk, than from vaccines."
Given the current controversy some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, but in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s. Parents and the public - unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works - were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. Nevertheless, that procedure, as unappetizing as it may be, was effective and saved countless lives.
A British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights by the government. Over 160 years later that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. Medical folklorist Kitta told Discovery News that "People who choose not to vaccinate truly believe their rights are being violated and believe they are in danger of further violation... Some people will now reject vaccines solely on the basis that they feel their rights are being violated-not because they necessarily oppose or are even uncertain about vaccination."
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So while the California law is likely to save lives in the long run it may also strengthen opposition to mandatory vaccination efforts.
There are small but real risks involved in vaccinations, as there are with any drug. They are not hidden, and information on them easily available from doctors or online. The risks of harmful side effects (not developing autism or another such disease) are far less dangerous than the risks of catching the disease.