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Diagnosing The Anti-Vaccine Movement: Then And Now

The anti-vaccination movement has a long and storied history.

CREDIT: Flickr user NIAID.

A study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health found that kindergarten students in California most likely to be excused from state vaccine requirements due to the personal beliefs of their parents were white and of higher socioeconomic status.

An analysis of more than 6,200 schools found that areas with mostly white, high-income populations, such as Orange County and Santa Barbara, had higher exemption percentages than other areas. Among kindergarteners attending private institutions, vaccine exemptions were twice as common.

In 2013, 3.06 percent of California kindergarteners were exempt from vaccinations based on the personal beliefs of their parents, a rate that was nearly double what it was in 2007. This means around 17,00 out of almost half a million children were not vaccinated while attending school in 2013.

Why Don’t Parents Vaccinate Their Children?

A 2011 study published by Public Health Reports found that, among those who exempt or delay their children from vaccination requirements, 57 percent have concerns regarding autism, 63 percent are worried about serious side effects, and 78 percent think children receive too many shots.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 48 states and the District of Columbia allow vaccine exemptions based on religious beliefs, and 20 states allow philosophical exemptions based on personal or moral beliefs. The latter will soon drop to 18, though, as legislation passed last year in both Vermont and California repealing philosophical exemptions will take effect in July.

In June 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 277 into law, banning parents from using personal beliefs as a reason to exempt children from state vaccine requirements. The law also outlaws exemptions based on religious beliefs, as current California legislation defines personal beliefs as also including religious objections.

Once the bill takes effect, medical exemptions will remain lawful, with the State Department of Public Health reviewing each case.

Parents who maintain that their children not be vaccinated will have three options: homeschool, take part in a multifamily private homeschool, or have local education agencies administer public school independent study.

Co-introduced by Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, Senate Bill 277 was born out of a movement known as Vaccinate California. According to its website, Vaccinate California is made up of mothers, fathers, teachers, nurses, doctors, grandparents, sons, and daughters, all of whom volunteered to advocate on the bill’s behalf.

In passing the bill, California became the 33rd state to ban parents from refusing to vaccinate their children based on personal beliefs.

The History of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The driving force behind the anti-vaccine movement came in 1998 with the publication of a case study and related paper in the Lancet, a U.K. medical journal, by lead author Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues.

The study, which garnered international attention, came to the conclusion that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine could lead to behavioral deterioration and pervasive developmental disorders, specifically autism, in children.

Due to parental concerns about autism risks associated with the MMR vaccine, vaccination rates began to drop in the U.K., where by 2004 rates had plummeted as low as 80 percent.

The drop in vaccination rates, considered an effect of Wakefield’s study, was identified by the Health Protection Agency as the culprit in multiple measles outbreaks in the U.K. in 2008 and 2009. There have also been small bursts of cases in Canada and the U.S. as a result of parents not vaccinating their children.

For example, in the U.S., there were more cases of measles reported in 2008 than any other year since 1997. An inquiry into the cases found that, among those infected, over 90 percent either hadn’t received the MMR vaccine or had an unknown vaccination status.

In the months and years following the paper’s publication in the Lancet, other researchers conducted and published numerous studies refuting the link between the vaccine and autism, and 10 of the 12 co-authors ended up retracting the results.

Additionally, Wakefield was never able to reproduce the results of the study, while other researchers were never able to match them.

In looking at the approaches of the case study, it was revealed that there was a sample size of just 12 children and an uncontrolled design. Additionally, the reported conclusions were of a speculative nature.

An initial investigation into the case study by the Lancet in 2004 found that Wakefield didn’t disclose that he was being funded by lawyers who were representing parents in lawsuits against companies that manufactured vaccines. However, the journal cleared the author and his colleagues of ethical violations and scientific misconduct charges, as there was no evidence of intent to deceive.

However, the Lancet retracted the paper completely in February 2010 due to several elements it said were incorrect and flawed. The journal held the 13 authors guilty of ethical violations, a result of invasively studying the children without receiving proper clearance, and scientific misrepresentation, as the sampling was originally reported as consecutive when it was actually selective, and deliberate.

It was also determined they were of guilty of deliberate fraud, as the fabricated facts and only selected data that corresponded to their case.

A few months later, in May, Wakefield had his medical license taken away by Britain.

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Today

Despite the retraction of Wakefield’s paper, the anti-vaccine movement continues to have a presence today, led by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, whose son has autism, and Jim Carrey.

In an opinion piece on CNN in 2008, McCarthy said she is adamant that vaccines caused her son’s autism, calling the disorder an environmental illness in which vaccines isn’t the only trigger, but play a large role.

She hinted at the idea that the vaccine program in today’s society may not be a method of prevention, but rather a profit engine, as the pharmaceutical industry has billions of dollars. Specifically, she pointed at how children receive 10 vaccines by age five in the 1980s, a number that grew to 36 by 2008, most of which are administered by age two.

To reverse the rate of autism, McCarthy suggested changing the vaccine schedule for children, reducing how many vaccines children are given, and removing ingredients from vaccines that could be toxic to some children.

She noted that while she believes there is strong proof that there hare hazardous ingredients in vaccines and children get too many, too soon, she is not against all vaccines. In recent years, she has distanced herself from the term “anti-vaccine,” instead referring to the movement as “pro safe-vaccines.”

What’s The Verdict on Vaccines?

In an effort to curb worries over routine vaccines for children, researchers reviewed over 20,000 scientific tiles and 67 papers in 2014, publishing their findings in the Journal of Pediatrics.

They reviewed data from sources including PubMed, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices statements, package inserts, existing reviews, manufacturers’ information packets, and the Institute of Medicine’s 2011 consensus report on vaccine safety.

In regards to the MMR vaccine, researchers concluded there was strong evidence against a connection between the vaccine and autism.

While the study did have some limitations, and there is some evidence suggesting certain vaccines are associated with serious adverse events, researchers found that such occurrences are incredibly rare and should be evaluated against the protection vaccines offer.

Matt Wotus is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering health and health care. Follow him on Instagram at @mawotus_27.

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