Nowadays, many parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children, having been told, incorrectly, that vaccines are too dangerous. This is far different from when vaccines were first developed. When the Salk vaccine for polio first came out in the 1950s, parents would endure long lines for a chance to avoid a disease that crippled or killed hundreds of thousands of children yearly in this country alone.
The first major anti-vaccine thrust came courtesy of a television show, 20/20, over 30 years ago. Someone noticed that crib deaths (SIDS) and receiving whooping cough (pertussis) vaccines happened at around the same time, and the producers of the show advertised for parents whose children had received the vaccine and then died of SIDS soon thereafter. They found plenty of them, and went on the air announcing their discovery. The problem is that what they found was merely a coincidence. Had they advertised for parents whose babies had the vaccine and then soon thereafter started to eat cereal, or had their first laugh, or even who had missed their whooping cough vaccine, they would have found plenty of those, and been able to ‘prove’ that cereal, or laughing, or missing vaccines, caused SIDS. As subsequently shown by numerous actual studies, there was no association between the vaccine and SIDS.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. England in particular took this to heart, and the vaccination rate fell. The outcome was easily predictable. Pertussis cases rose, a few children died, and that in turn convinced parents to start vaccinating again, and the number of cases dropped once again.
The next big controversy, which still lingers, was with autism and the MMR vaccine. Autism is often diagnosed around the age when the MMR is given, leading people to assume the two are related. This is not so. Numerous studies, in various countries, with various designs, involving tens of thousands of children, have shown that this is a coincidence; the chance of developing autism is the same whether one is vaccinated or not.
This controversy was fueled by an article Andrew Wakefield published in the prestigious journal Lancet in 1998, showing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. No scientist has ever been able to replicate his findings, with good reason; the study was fraudulent. You are probably aware that the article was later retracted by the journal, and disavowed by Wakefield’s co-authors. You may not be aware of how the article came to be written. Lawyers in England were looking to sue the manufacturer of the MMR vaccine, but in England, you need scientific proof, not just speculation, to do so. Therefore, a group of lawyers hired Mr. Wakefield to find some proof, which he subsequently did, in the now discredited article. For an excellent report on this, go to www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c5347.
After the article, MMR vaccination rates naturally fell, and England had its first death from measles in 14 years. Mr. Wakefield subsequently lost his license to practice medicine, and moved to the United States, where he has earned a living advocating against vaccines.