A little bit of information can be a dangerous thing, especially in an era when just about anyone can create an authoritative-looking website. The Internet overflows with armchair experts and charlatans alike determined to convince you of the dangers of childhood vaccinations.
Well-intentioned parents, armed with access to Google, are rejecting in droves the well-established scientific consensus that supports vaccinating children. Their conviction is fueled and reinforced by an internet community convinced of its cause.
These “anti-vaxxers,” as they are derisively known, are rapidly becoming a big problem for health care professionals in the west. At the turn of the 20th century, childhood illnesses such as measles, pertussis (whooping cough) and diphtheria were a real concern. Tens of thousands died every year from diseases we now barely give a second thought to.
Vaccines have turned the tide, reducing the death toll from these illnesses in the developed world to close to zero. But these illnesses are making a comeback, thanks in large part to a movement that really began picking up steam in the late 1990s after a British doctor published an article claiming a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.
This report has since been widely discredited, but the damage was already done. Today many parents will swear to it that their child’s autism was the result of their vaccination, while other parents refuse to vaccinate their kids for fear of the same.
Fear of scary-sounding chemicals has also played a big role in driving the movement. It is true that some vaccines contain some chemicals that we can’t pronounce, and others, like aluminum that we generally try to avoid. But chemistry is complex, and a “good chemical, bad chemical” understanding is far too simplistic to be of any use.
The difference between “bad” methylmercury, which builds up in our bodies, and ethylmercury, which was removed from most vaccines about a decade ago more to placate concerned parents than out of genuine medical concern, is important, but totally lost on those who hear the word “mercury” and close their ears.
Our body’s ability to process chemicals must also be taken into account. Obviously aluminum, which is put into vaccine to boost its effectiveness, is something we don’t want too much of in our body. But in the quantities contained in vaccine is small in comparison to the quantity found in other sources (such as infant formula) and is harmlessly processed by the body in a relatively short time period.
Another fear that fuels the anti-vaccine movement and makes it impervious to persuasion is of “big pharma” and its alleged co-conspirators in government. Meanwhile, the profit motives of the gurus of the anti-vaccine movement – MDs with a book deal, and websites selling “natural” alternatives – is lost on the devout.
Certainly there are a “experts” who lend credence to the movement – as you can find on almost any subject – but they are a small minority. Very few family doctors recommend against the usual regimen of childhood vaccinations. Professional groups such as the Canadian Medical Association and the American Association of Pediatrics, and governmental bodies charged with public health such as Health Canada or the World Health Organization, are nearly unanimous in support of routine childhood vaccination.
As Canadians, we tend to err on the side of allowing adults to make their own medical decisions, however unscientific and harmful these choices may be. But the issue of vaccination is not so simple.
Even if we accepted that parents have the same right to make poor, unscientific decisions about their own children’s health, the damage to “herd immunity” caused by the anti-vaccine movement means there are consequences beyond its own followers. The reality is that there are many people – the very young, those with allergies to vaccines, those undergoing chemotherapy, and those who are otherwise immunocompromised – who cannot be vaccinated. When most people are immunized, it is hard for diseases to get a foothold, and as a result those who can’t be vaccinated are protected by herd immunity.
But when too many parents refuse to vaccinate their children because of illusory fears that “big pharma” is in cahoots with family doctors and the government to poison our children, diseases can gain a footing. Measles recently gained such a foothold at Disneyland, of all places, and public health authorities are now struggling to catch up. Outbreaks are beginning to take place across North America with disturbing regularity.
The idea of overriding parental authority and requiring that children receive immunizations shocks the conscience of far too many people to make it a realistic solution. But it’s well within the realm of society’s discretion to decide that the unvaccinated are too great a risk to allow at daycares, public recreational facilities, and maybe even public schools.
It is time that we stand up and protect the vulnerable against the danger of the pseudoscientific anti-vaccine movement.
Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.