There are several diseases we have heard about that are not around anymore. Smallpox, polio, and rubella are some of these – preventable diseases that have been either eradicated from the world or no longer pose a major threat. It was possible to declare smallpox, a painful infectious disease which killed 35% of its victims and left others blind or scarred, completely eradicated from the world in 1977 after all infected patients were tracked down and vaccinated as fast as possible.
The success of vaccines has saved millions of lives. However, in 1998 one doctor – Andrew Wakefield – published an article claiming a link between the MMR vaccine (against measles, mumps, and rubella) and autism. This study caused mass hysteria, however, the results could not be replicated and the medical journal later retracted the paper it had published.
Wakefield had used his position as a healthcare professional to change the path of medical advances through vaccination. It was discovered that he had put the children being tested through unnecessary medical procedures, without prior consent, to try to prove his point. It is hard to believe that it only took one article containing false information to make a big change that was to instil mistrust and fear in the minds of people for decades to come.
Since then, millions have been spent on dozens of investigations to look for a link between vaccines and autism. None has been found. And while the anti-vaccination movement has gained ground, millions of lives have been lost to preventable disease.
Take measles for example – around the year 2000 cases of measles in the US had decreased drastically to around 100 people contracting the virus each year. However, between 2013 and 2019 cases rose dramatically in some close-knit communities that were choosing not to vaccinate their children against measles. While most people will be completely healed following infection with measles, a small percentage go on to suffer a form of brain damage called Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE) which develops 6-8 years after infection. SSPE can develop more quickly if a pregnant woman catches measles or if a baby catches measles soon after birth.
It is easier to dismiss the importance of a disease if the suffering experienced is no longer in our memory. We do not worry about polio anymore because most of us have not experienced it in our lifetime. However, infection with polio causes permanent paralysis in around 1% of infected children because of the virus invading the CNS, i.e., the brain and spinal cord. There is no treatment or cure, and it can be fatal. In adults, the chance of permanent damage and death is much higher. To date, polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with healthcare bodies still fighting for total eradication.
The choice of whether to vaccinate your child or opt to receive vaccination yourself does not only affect you or your child. Herd immunity is a term used to describe a situation where enough of the community has received vaccination to offer protection to those who either cannot or who have low immunity (e.g.people receiving chemotherapy, those with autoimmune diseases). The percentage of the population needed for this kind of protection varies with each disease. Herd immunity can stop the spread of illness, such as with swine flu or influenza, within an entire country.
All vaccines released and authorised through official governing bodies go through four phases of trials just like all medicines do. These trials not only test whether the medicine does what it was designed to do on people of different ages, ethnicities, and co-morbidities, but also that its benefits outweigh any potential side effects. If there are worrying results or not sufficient proof that the vaccine works, the trials are stopped, and the product is not authorised for release to the market.
The Covid-19 vaccines that have just been authorised by the European Commission and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States have gone through all four phases of the trials in the regular manner like previous vaccines. The first versions that are being introduced in Europe are the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines. These are found to be 95% and 94.5% effective respectively after taking 2 doses. This can be compared to the measles vaccine, which is around 97% effective.
All vaccines have the potential to cause side effects, but these are usually minor. These are usually a sign that the body is starting to build an immune response against the disease. Serious side effects from vaccines are extremely rare e.g., 1 person in 1 million doses given. Receiving a vaccine is always deemed safer than getting the disease the vaccine prevents.
A Statement by the Editors of the Lancet. 20th February 2004. Retrieved from: https://www.thelancet.com/pb-assets/Lancet/extras/statement20Feb2004web.pdf
Measles cases and outbreaks. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). November 2020. Accessed at: Measles Cases and Outbreaks | CDCMeasles Cases and Outbreaks | CDC
Kneen R. Subacute Chronic Pan-Encephalitis (SSPE). Encephalitis Society. Last updated January 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.encephalitis.info/subacute-sclerosing-pan-encephalitis-sspe
Lawton, G. Everything you need to know about the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine. December 2020. Accessed at: Everything you need to know about the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine | New Scientist
Vaccine Side Effects. Vaccine.gov. Accessed at: Vaccine Side Effects | Vaccines