Taking potshots at vaccines

Glenn Ellis | 4/12/2019, 6 a.m.
Measles cases have cropped up across 12 states over the last 10 weeks, nearly two decades since the highly contagious ...

Glenn Ellis

Glenn Ellis

Measles cases have cropped up across 12 states over the last 10 weeks, nearly two decades since the highly contagious disease was said to be eradicated in the United States.

Temple University in Philadelphia has reported more than 100 cases of mumps in an outbreak, and more cases are spreading across the Philadelphia region.

Regrettably, I believe we are at the tip of the iceberg, thanks to the enormous amount of false and misleading information from the anti-vaccine movement.

Vaccines are one of the most successful programs in modern health care, reducing, and in some cases even eliminating, serious infectious diseases. Public support for the vaccination program remains strong, especially in the United States, where vaccination rates are currently at an all-time high of more than 95 percent of the population.  

Yet, despite a long history of safety and effectiveness, vaccines always have had their critics. Some parents and a tiny fringe of doctors question whether vaccinating children is worth what they perceive as the risks. In recent years, the anti-vaccination movement, largely based on poor science and fear-mongering, has become more vocal and even hostile.

In January alone, measles outbreaks were confirmed in 10 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of course, vaccines are not without risk — no medical intervention is — although the benefits far outweigh those risks.

In 1998, researcher Andrew Wakefield and some of his colleagues published a study in the prestigious English medical journal Lancet that claimed to show a connection between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine, or MMR, and autism.

Subsequent to the seminal article in Lancet, many follow-up studies were performed testing the autism-MMR vaccine correlation. As the follow-up studies began to be published, however, it became increasingly clear that there was no link between MMR and autism. For example, a study in the British Medical Journal found that autism rates continued to climb in areas where MMR vaccination rates were not increasing. Another study found no association with MMR and autism or gastrointestinal disorders. Other studies showed no difference in the diagnosis rate of autism either before or after the MMR vaccine was administered, or between vaccinated and unvaccinated children. Most recently, a study found no decrease in autism rates following removal of the MMR vaccine in Japan.

In 2001, the Institute of Medicine reviewed all of the MMR-autism data available and concluded there was no association and essentially closed the case — a conclusion confirmed by still later studies.

If Dr. Wakefield had simply been wrong in his preliminary findings, he would be innocent of any wrongdoing. Scientists are not faulted if their early findings are not later replicated. However in May 2004, 10 of Dr. Wakefield’s co-authors on his original paper withdrew their support for its conclusions. The editors of Lancet also announced they withdrew their endorsement of the paper (the first time in almost 200 years) and cited as part of the reason an undisclosed potential conflict of interest for Dr. Wakefield, namely that at the time of his article’s publication he was conducting research for a group of parents of autistic children seeking to sue for damages from MMR vaccine producers.