The danger and prejudice of the anti-vaxxer movement

Written by Elly Henkes |

Vaccines have changed the world for the better, but a conspiracy theory says otherwise |
Image from Pixabay 

Following the case of measles reported at the universities of Exeter and Falmouth on the 29th March, and with April being Autism Awareness Month, I’ve been prompted to look into the rise of the ‘anti-vaxxer’. Where did this movement come from and what does it mean for the population? Why is the association of vaccines with autism such an issue for some? By taking a moment to give the facts some recognition, I’m hoping that people will remember the importance of vaccines and realise how prejudiced society is towards those with autism.

Cases of measles are currently surging around the world, with Unicef warning that alarmingly high levels are a growing threat to children. According to Unicef’s website, significant outbreaks are happening in countries such as Ukraine, the Philippines and Brazil, and ten countries accounted for approximately three-quarters of the total increase in measles in 2018. Around the globe, 98 countries reported a rise in measles cases in 2018, including a number of countries that had previously eradicated the disease.

In 2017, the UK was declared ‘measles free’ by the World Health Organisation

The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is said to be 97% effective in preventing measles, mumps and rubella when both doses have been administered. In 2017, the UK was declared ‘measles free’ by the World Health Organisation, meaning that – although cases do still occur – the disease is no longer native to the country.

Whilst the vaccine has been successful, it can only protect the population if all people who are able to get the vaccine do so. People with compromised immune systems and various illnesses who cannot be vaccinated rely on others to ensure they are protected. It is incredibly important to get vaccinated; not doing so is a choice that puts at risk the lives of children and destroys herd immunity for those who cannot be immunised.

In recent years, the misinformation spread by anti-vaccination advocates has led to falling rates of those getting the MMR vaccine. The internet and social media have spread doubts about its safety, fuelling conspiracy theories about links with autism and other conditions. Subsequently, the “anti-vaxxer” movement has become a worrying trend.

Editorial cartoon by DON LEE, | used by permission

The fear of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first roused by a now discredited British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, during a press conference following his 1998 study of just 12 children. His statements, in which he called for a suspension of the MMR vaccine despite the study being inconclusive, are believed to have fuelled the vaccination scare. His research paper, published in the highly respected medical journal The Lancet, led to him to being struck from the UK medical register. Twenty years later, however, he now has an unprecedented and unforeseen influence worldwide, especially in America.

Wakefield has since gone on to pursue the supposed connection between vaccines and autism in order to dissuade people from getting their MMR jabs, founding both the Strategic Autism Initiative and the Autism Media Channel in an attempt to become a leading authority.

In the past decade, he has been prominent in producing antivaccination propaganda. He is well respected and even revered by some groups of vaccine sceptics, but many forget his tarnished history in the medical field.

Journalist Brian Deer published his first investigation into the fraudulent nature of Wakefield’s paper in 2004, showing that it was flawed both scientifically and ethically. There was also a conflict of interest, as evidence suggested Wakefield was receiving money from trial lawyers while writing the study. In 2009, it was found that there was falsification present in the study, as some information that Wakefield used was different from the information found in the medical records of the subjects. The Lancet eventually retracted the study in 2010, showing once and for all that it held no standing in the medical world.

…there is no evidence that the measles vaccine could be a cause of autism.

So it’s been proven that the MMR vaccines have no link to autism and are perfectly safe. Back in 2008, a comprehensive study conducted by Guy’s Hospital in London, Manchester University, and the Health Protection Agency, analysed the blood samples of 250 children and concluded there is no evidence that the measles vaccine could be a cause of autism. The World Health Organisation and many other public health authorities have repeatedly reassured parents that the dangers are purely fabricated and the MMR vaccine is to be trusted. However many anti-vaxxer parents still insist autism is a ‘risk’.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder which affects the way that people perceive the world and relate to others. The NHS website describes autism as a “lifelong condition that affects how people communicate and interact with others” with two common characteristics – difficulties with social communication and interaction; and repetitive behaviour, routines and activities.

It’s almost impossible to compare current rates of autism with the rates of the previous century, as along with changing definitions, our understanding of autism has changed. Today there is a much more expanded knowledge of autism as a spectrum, and it’s likely that higher rates of autism are due to the increased effectiveness of diagnosing and reporting.

But whilst much of the public discussion is focussed on the science that shows vaccines don’t cause autism, the underlying problem is that autism is seen as a worst case scenario, that autistic children are seen as unwanted, undesirable. Wakefield often talks of the ‘risks’ of autism, while his Autism Media Channel states on YouTube that its team is “dedicated to repairing broken families living with ASD”.

Anti-vaxxers claim to care about families with autistic children, but all they do is demonise the disorder

This is incredibly dangerous as it propagates the attitude that autistic children are not equally entitled to life. The implication of people saying they don’t want their children to be vaccinated because it could cause autism is that they would rather have a sick child than one that is on the autistic spectrum. Anti-vaxxers claim to care about families with autistic children, but all they do is demonise the disorder, forgetting that children with autism can live fulfilling lives and go on to become happy and healthy adults.

With the uptake of the MMR vaccine falling, worldwide attempts have been made to dispel anti-vaxxer thinking, including in the UK. Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock is pushing for new legislation that will make social media companies remove content which promotes misleading information about vaccines. The movement is misinformed and dangerous, so it’s vital we make every effort to lift the hold it has, both to protect parents from losing children to preventable diseases, and to stop the prejudice against people with autism.