How the truth became subjective
|By Karla Atanacio|
The World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed vaccine hesitation among the “top threats” to global health. According to the report released on January 18, the reluctance or refusal to get vaccinated threatens to reverse progress made in vaccine-preventable diseases.
The invention of vaccines may be one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments – saving an estimated two to three million people every year, as well as billions of dollars in treatment costs. However, due to misinformation regarding the safety and efficacy of these life-saving measures, many people choose not to take their shots. The WHO Vaccine Advisory Group identified three main causes of vaccine hesitancy: complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence. However, pseudoscience, false media coverage, and public rumours on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have also intensified anti-vaccine sentiments.
The distortion of the public’s perception of vaccination emerged in 1998 when British doctor Andrew Wakefield and 12 others authored a fraudulent research study linking measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. The study was highly criticized by the scientific community, citing that the results were too speculative to be considered scientific. For one reason, Wakefield and his colleagues only studied 12 individuals for the research and that it was done under an uncontrolled environment. Other scientists were quick to debunk the information presented in Wakefield’s paper by performing their own experiments. Soon, 10 of Wakefield’s 12 co-authors retracted their findings. According to the retraction, “no causal link was established between the MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” Andrew Wakefield was then de-licensed by medical authorities. Wakefield incited public panic and encouraged mistrust towards medical institutions.
In Great Britain, child vaccination dramatically dropped from 92 per cent in 1996, to only 80 per cent in 2003. The hesitancy to get vaccinated resulted in the re-emergence of measles, a once nearly eradicated disease in the country. In its 2018 report, the WHO has seen a 30 per cent increase in measles cases globally. Meanwhile, the CBC published an article stating that six children have died of complications related to influenza between December 2018 and January 2019. Last year, an astounding 80,000 people died of influenza-related complications in the United States.
Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that Wakefield’s claims were false, many people remain skeptical or unconvinced of vaccines. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccine movement has only gotten stronger over the years, especially with the rise of digital media. Online spaces, such as Facebook groups, have created a place for skeptics to only see information that echoes their own beliefs. These groups are fuelled by conspiracy theories that intensify people’s mistrust against the government, medical institutions, and vaccine manufacturers. One of the most popular conspiracy theories suggests that vaccines are laced with mercury.
The Centre of Disease Control website explains that Thimerosal – once a common preservative for vaccines – breaks down into ethyl mercury. Immunize.ca asserts, “low doses of thimerosal have not been shown to produce any negative health effects. Nevertheless, no vaccine in Canada since March 2001 for routine use in children contains thimerosal, with the exception of some influenza vaccines. DTaP, polio and Hib vaccines have not contained this preservative since 1997-98. The MMR vaccine used in Canada has never contained thimerosal.”
Misleading stories like these are rapidly shared on the Internet with the help of “thought influencers” such as health professionals, “mommy bloggers,” and celebrities. As a result, concerned parents succumb to unsafe and even life-threatening alternatives. Last October, a group of Colorado parents were found deliberately infecting their kids with virus via “chicken pox parties,” organized through Facebook. The risk with chicken pox is that it can lead to further complications including pneumonia, encephalitis, and group A strep – all of which are fatal to young children. Chicken pox parties were held during the olden days, but doctors suggest that vaccinations are much safer.
Skepticism towards vaccination is not only unjust, but also irresponsible. When people fail to get immunized, they are putting themselves and the people around them at risk of contracting diseases. Children, the elderly, and the sick are especially vulnerable to illness. Sometimes a simple case of flu may lead to serious complications, or even death. It is our responsibility as citizens to ensure that our immunity as a community does not get compromised. In light of the spread of “fake news,” it is also our duty to approach everything we see on the Internet with precaution. The anti-vaccine movement is using digital media to spread false, and frankly, “ableist” information. This prompts us to reflect on our beliefs as a society. Why are we more afraid to have a child with autism than we are afraid of our children dying of lethal diseases?
- “6 Flu Deaths among Kids Reported in Canada | CBC News.” CBC, 11 Jan. 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/flu-1.4975466. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
- “Growing Number of Young Children Dying from Flu.” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/growing-number-young-children-dying-flu-n841136. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
- Gu, Zhongyi, et al. “A Vaccine Crisis in the Era of Social Media.” National Science Review, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 8–10. Crossref, doi:10.1093/nsr/nwx098.
- Questions and Answers | Immunizecanada. https://immunize.ca/questions-and-answers. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
- Staff, Vox. “Podcasts.” Vox, 10 June 2016, https://www.vox.com/pages/podcasts. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
- Ten Health Issues WHO Will Tackle This Year. https://www.who.int/emergencies/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
- “The Vaccine-Autism Myth Started 20 Years Ago. It Still Endures Today.” Time, http://time.com/5175704/andrew-wakefield-vaccine-autism. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
- “WHO | Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy.” WHO, http://www.who.int/immunization/programmes_systems/vaccine_hesitancy/en. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
Karla Atanacio is currently in her second year of International Development Studies at the University of Winnipeg. At 13, she moved with her family to Canada to seek a better future. Karla enjoys being involved in the community and volunteers with different Filipino-Canadian heritage organizations. In her spare time, Karla enjoys fusion cuisine and listening to podcasts.
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