HEALTH MATTERS: The vaccination debate persists despite evidence

HEALTH MATTERS with Ryan Hunton

By: Ryan Hunton

As a child, a weakened, inactivated, or killed virus was injected into you. Although at the time you may not have been able to weigh the gravity of the matter (for you, it was just a ‘shot’ that hurt), this injection may have saved you from any one of several severe infectious diseases. Vaccination ‘programs’ your immune system to remember particular disease-causing agents so that it is ready to respond if faced with a living virus with full-strength.

For most of us, vaccines have been a part of life since infancy. The twentieth century contained several medical breakthroughs and advancements in public health in the United States. Through the development of vaccination programs, the reduction and elimination of several infectious diseases, including polio and measles, is considered to be one of those great triumphs. Although not immediately apparent, many of you reading this article today (and perhaps I) would not be living had vaccines not been developed and implemented during childhood.

More than just protecting yourself, your immunization protects the people around you, particularly those at risk like babies, pregnant women, and elderly people. Assistant Director of Health Promotion Kathryn Steward said that when enough people in a community have been vaccinated, there is little opportunity for an epidemic. This concept, called ‘herd immunity,’ is crucial to the success of vaccination programs. However, Steward said, many may not realize that it exists. 

“A lot of people think, ‘My son or daughter didn’t have vaccinations and they are doing fine.’ Well, that is because most everyone else did have vaccinations,” Steward said.

Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Rebecca Shadowen of Medical Specialists of Central Kentucky said that the single most important thing that an individual can do in preventative medicine is to receive vaccinations.

“Without vaccinations, you change the herd immunity,” she said. “A whole lot more infectious disease occurs because we change our exposure.”

She said although vaccinations are not 100 percent effective, they do keep us safer overall. 

“It helps to keep all the people that you care about from being exposed,” she said.

Still, there are several outspoken opponents to vaccinations throughout the nation. The questions of whether vaccines should be administered to infants and children and, along the same line of thought, whether parents should continue to have a choice in the matter have resurfaced in the American conversation within the last few months. Although scientific research has debunked the claim that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism, the anti-vaccine campaign continues.

Dr. Shadowen said that the debate persists because of lack of information, education, and understanding regarding the effects of vaccination.

“When people are not empowered with knowledge, it is easy to become fearful,” she said. “History is probably our best teacher regarding vaccinations.”

At the end of the 19th Century (before vaccination led to the eventual eradication of smallpox in 1979), there was a similar debate regarding the effectiveness and mandatory implementation of smallpox vaccinations. Leading the anti-vaccination campaign at the time was British scientist and writer Alfred Russel Wallace. 

Science Librarian and historian Charles Smith has documented several of Wallace’s writings on the matter. He said that Wallace opposed vaccines because the statistics at the time were not scientifically rigorous, because several people that received the primitive inoculation would die from it, and because he felt that each person should have a choice to receive the vaccination.

Smith said that Wallace probably would support the widespread administration of vaccinations if he was alive today because of the large amount of scientific evidence displaying its effectiveness. However, he said, he would have taken interest in the anti-vaccination campaign.

“One of the differences now is that the efficacy rates seem to be very clear, and you’re not forced to have a vaccination,” he said. 

Smith said that in his own life he tends to go along with medical establishment, although he keeps an open mind.

“The medical establishment has not been completely forthcoming in part,” he said. “There is no reason to think that it will in this case. They’re not always right.”

Perhaps this mistrust or lack of faith in medical establishment is at the heart of the anti-vaccine campaign. The View cohost Jenny McCarthy has been labeled as a leader in the anti-vaccine campaign. Saturday, she explained her view in a Chicago Sun Times column “The gray area on vaccines.”

“I am not ‘anti-vaccine’ … I believe in the importance of a vaccine program and I believe parents have the right to choose one poke per visit,” she wrote. “Should a child with the flu receive six vaccines in one doctor visit? Should a child with a compromised immune system be treated the same way as a robust, healthy child? … I will continue to say what I have always said: ‘One size does not fit all.’”

According to one San Francisco pediatrician, vaccines have become a sort of scapegoat for many people’s fears about medicine, government, and mistrust of authority. A question of faith in the healthcare system, pharmaceutical industries, and the relationship between scientific and governmental institutions appears to lie at the heart of the debate. Many feel alienated from mainstream Western medicine and question the status quo regarding several of its practices, even thoroughly researched practices such as vaccination.

According to vaccine advocate Dr. Paul Offit, these antagonistic feelings toward Western medicine result from how medical practitioners are viewed: “Practitioners of modern medicine can appear callous and insensitive. Patients feel more like a number than a person … modern medicine is spiritless and technological.”

Still, the effectiveness of vaccinations is a matter to be considered scientifically. Steward said that it’s a personal choice for people and that their choice should be based on resources that are scientific and not opinion-based. She points to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health as reliable sources.

Dr. Shadowen said that she considers her job as a caregiver to be a source of accurate and reliable information.

“We try to prevent heart disease, and we try to prevent stroke, but these all depend on the individual,” she said. “The one thing that we can truly consider preventative medicine is vaccination.”