The anti-vaccine movement: Danger masquerading as freedom

By Stefan Herlitz

(El Alvi/Flickr)
(El Alvi/Flickr)

Not so long ago, there was a time when the threat of disease was an ever-present danger, a time when epidemics resulted in the deaths of millions, not thousands. Smallpox, cholera, polio, whooping cough, measles, mumps and a whole host of other illnesses that once ravaged humanity have either been eliminated entirely or made extremely rare and survivable thanks to the development of vaccines.

The current generation, however, largely does not have a memory of that time. Most of the population has never lived in a time when polio and smallpox were anything other than diseases for the history books. Many don’t recall that triumphant moment in May 1980 when the World Health Organization issued a proclamation: “Having considered the development and results of the global programme on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … [The WHO] declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.” The eradication of smallpox, a disease that killed up to 500 million people in the 20th century alone, with a worldwide vaccination campaign is easily one of the crowning achievements of humanity.

The present, however, is not the golden age of vaccination that the latter half of the 20th century was. There exists a vocal, growing minority that campaigns for the ability to not vaccinate themselves and their children, and also spreads fear, even going so far as to claim that vaccines cause autism.

This claim is, of course, patently false. Scientific consensus has proven time and again that there is no link between vaccines and autism, yet one in four Americans still believe that vaccines cause autism. Many supporters of the anti-vaccine movement point to a 1998 study that linked childhood vaccines to autism, but “an investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study — and that there was “no doubt” Wakefield was responsible… Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license,” according to a CNN report, and the journal that had published Wakefield’s findings, “The Lancet,” published a formal retraction in 2004.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a disturbing percentage of Americans are convinced that vaccines cause autism, or otherwise reject all vaccines on religious grounds, and as a result are weakening our children’s herd immunity to a wide variety of illnesses. Schools are, have been and always will be hotbeds for viruses and illnesses to spread, so it is imperative that children be properly vaccinated. While the state has no business regulating the personal decisions of individuals, that protection cannot extend to choices that actively endanger others. Non-vaccination puts lives in danger—not just the lives of those opting out of vaccines, but those of others, and every day children are falling ill with deadly, preventable illnesses simply because some irresponsible parents choose not to vaccinate theirs.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]