Europe is presently in the midst of a Measles outbreak.
In 2018 alone, there have been over 41,000 cases of the potentially fatal disease. The World Health Organisation has suggested this is due to the increased scepticism over perceived harms of the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine (MMR).
Our very own Director of Public Health echoes these sentiments by stating vaccines are overwhelmingly beneficial to health and that there are no reasons to believe the conspiracy theories about vaccines.
But what if, sometimes, the boy who cried wolf was telling the truth? And haven’t we been here before? Gef investigates…
WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE
It’s all too easy to end up down the rabbit hole that is YouTube. A quiet Friday night watching DIY instructional videos can soon escalate to a bleary-eyed lost weekend, one in which you discover the moon landings were faked, 9/11 was an inside job and the Chuckle Brothers are still very much alive.
To many, this is now the age of the conspiracy theory. With the freedoms bestowed on all of us by ubiquitous internet access and social media, wild theories can spread at a rapid rate. These theories are often petrol-soaked dominoes toppling in a blaze, scorching all rational thought, facts and evidence into forgotten ash.
The MMR was, in its fully developed form, readily distributed throughout the world from the 1970’s onwards. It is a triple vaccine for the three affected diseases and it has, since its inception, helped reduce what was seen as an inevitable disease into a preventable one. Put simply, millions of children have been protected thanks to this.
In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield authorised a paper claiming there was a link between the MMR vaccination and autism developing in children. In a pre-Twitter age, such an emotive topic grew legs via the British press. At the behest of any scientific reporting of any nature, the majority of the British tabloids ran with Wakefield’s theories, sensationalising his claims in order to sell papers.
A moral compass is rarely within close proximity of the editor of The Sun. The damage done when preying upon vulnerable parents was colossal. The proportion of toddlers getting the jab fell in the UK from 90% during the mid 1990’s to less than 70% in the immediate aftermath of Wakefield’s Lancet paper. As a result of this, measles rates in Britain increased substantially.
Paul Offit – a paediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – called it “the paper that killed children”.
Wakefield was, after a protracted legal case, instigated by Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer, struck off the UK medical register, his findings widely discredited and his reputation left in tatters.
Deer uncovered the horrifying reality that Wakefield had an agenda. More than 2 years prior to publishing the Lancet paper, the doctor was hired by a solicitor called Richard Barr. Barr was a specialist in criminal negligence whose primary focus at that time was to raise a class action against MMR manufacturers.
The ultimate aim was for him to uncover that MMR was harmful in whatever way he could. Dr Wakefield was employed to the tidy sum of £150 per hour, amounting in a short space of time to over £430,000 minus expenses.
With a vested interested behind the science, can we deem it science at all?
Some nine months before the infamous press conference in which Wakefield called for single rather than triple vaccines, he had filed a patent for his own single measles vaccine.
If he could somehow convince the public to lose confidence in the MMR – say, by utilising the morally bankrupt media to spin a link to autism, then it stood every chance of being a huge money-making success.
After the General Medical Register (GMC) found him to be acting dishonestly and irresponsibly, further realities of his methodology came to light.
The data he presented in his paper was radically different to what his fellow clinicians and pathology colleagues had seen. They had found nothing to implicate MMR. There were changes in diagnoses and histories of the twelve children undergoing testing. All this data manipulation made it seem as if a new syndrome had appeared as a direct result of the MMR jab. Worse still were the procedures the young children were subjected to, including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures.
Dr Wakefield’s former colleague, Dr Simon Murch said soon after the case – “There is now unequivocal evidence that MMR is not arisk for autism – this statement is not spin or medical conspiracy, but reflects an unprecedented volume of medical study on a worldwide basis”.
After being wholly discredited in the scientific community, countless follow on studies were undertaken, one of which conducted by the medical journal JAMA compared half a million kids who had received the vaccine with 100,000 who had not. Their findings were no differences in the autism rates between the two groups. It seems unfathomable that Wakefield got research to the prestigious levels of Lancet, particularly when his test group comprised of a mere dozen children.
And yet, Wakefield now finds himself in the US and revered as a deity-like figure by the anti-vaccine movement.
Celebrities such as Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Robert De Niro have, at differing times, all voiced support in some way to the group.
This occurred pre-Trump’s #FakeNews but it seems to nestle itself quite snugly into its troublesome nest. Fake news cannot be disproved. Fake news has an answer for every question, every fact and every shred of empirical evidence you throw its way.
If you delegitimise the sources, the press, the experts and the medical professionals, you are always indisputably right. And so, the conspiracy theorists will flock like Vitamin B deprived vultures, ready for the next pecking of ‘truths’; as partisan as the football fan during the big derby, as indignant as the innocent man on death row.
DIFFERENT RULES FOR DIFFERENT LANDS
Legendary scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once uttered,
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”
Further to this pearl of wisdom from the slug-tached king of astrophysics, science is forever changing and always finding new truths or denouncing old ones. It is a ruthless quest for truth, never content, never idle.
When you converge the worlds of science, politics and law, it can play out like a Marvel action flick without any of the witty asides from talking raccoons or muscly Norse gods. Each country is different and universes apart in their approach to such a nuanced and inflammatory issue.
Our very Isle’s former Director of Public Health, Dr Parameshwaran Kishore, believed it to be an unethical step to make any vaccination compulsory. The primary objective was to educate sufficiently, so as to convince parents of their worth. This remains the case to this day.
However, in the US and Australia all states require vaccination for school attendance. The US has seen jail time served for some of the non-compliant and in Australia, there are incentives such as family tax rebates and child care benefits provided for those parents who immunise their children.
Looking across the English Channel and by May of this year, France had had 2500 cases of measles, most of which were suffered by children too young to have the vaccine.
The French have the lowest confidence in vaccines in the world according to recent studies which suggests a direct link between outbreaks of measles and MMR vaccinations.
Any vaccine has its risks. Just read the side effects on the back of your antibiotics packet. It’s like opening a Narnia cupboard to hell. Don’t do it. This is why it’s important to note that the MMR and any other vaccine cannot be deemed to have no ramifications.
There have, on a few occasions, been legal cases which have linked MMR to brain deficiency. Anti-vaccine groups have applied continued pressure and might behind some legal cases and, on occasion they have emerged victorious.
Take the example of the 10-year old American boy, Bailey Banks. In 2007, his family won damages of $810,000.
The ruling was that the MMR vaccine had caused acute brain damage in the form of seizure disorders which then could be construed as leading to his autism spectrum disorder.
The legal team deliberately turned their focus away from the discredited link between autism and the MMR. Scientists still do not know exactly what causes autism which adds another layer of ambiguity here.
Indeed, when the final outcome was announced, there was no overt mentioning of autism in the verdict. Vaccines can, in extremely rare instances have unexpected side effects but then again, so can Calpol, Bonjela and Nurofen.
FAITH IN REASON
Perhaps it’s the real-life psychodrama that is social media, but it does appear society is on a knife-edge right now.
A flippant Instagram post from a celebrity “Kids shouldn’t be vaccinated OMG” could, with unerring precision and devastating traction, sway the opinions of millions of parents.
Perhaps vaccines are taken for granted. We live in a time where our primary concerns are battery life and wi-fi signal. We are a spoilt peoples, blissfully unaware of the ravaging horrors of infectious disease.
We must remember vaccination led to the eradication of smallpox, polio and others on a global scale.
If we cannot place our faith in science, in educators, doctors, law enforcement, the legal system and experts in their field then we, as a society will debase ourselves to little more than a real-life Twitter shouting match, locked in constant conflict, flippantly making ill-informed decisions. It’s a dangerous precedent.
Why do you brush your teeth or take your vitamins? Why listen to anybody at all?
The world is a crazy place now. It is extreme and divided and many of us are understandably distrustful. Where are the explanations for the chaos we scroll through on our Smartphones with such detachment?
I think it is essential to question everything. Do your research. Gather all the facts from credible sources. Listen to the people who know what they’re talking about. Be wary; a seed of doubt can soon blossom to a tree of conspiracy.
Yet, there is a real possibility that fear and anger could vanquish rational discussion. Facts and evidence versus blind, unreasoned opinion are not worthy foes.
Measles – the facts
- Can be fatal for small children
- Kills more than 100,000 people per year, most under age of 5
- Tiny white spots with bluish-white centres on a red background inside the mouth
- Skin rash, blotches
- No signs or symptoms during 10-14 day incubation period
- Then 2-3 days cold like symptoms
- Acute illness and rash, face breaks out first
- High temps up to 40c, can spread for 7-8 days
- Call your doctor if you or your child may have been exposed to measles
- Highly contagious
- Risk – unvaccinated, travelling internationally
- Complications – ear infection, bronchitis, croup, pneumonia, pregnancy problems, brain swelling, blood poisoning