Vaccines: A Measured Response

The Covid19 pandemic has brought the discussion about vaccine safety back into the headlines. And yet, despite media making it seem like a controversial issue debated over the last century, it's not. Vaccine doubts only began to emerge and take hold about 25 years ago, put into motion by a fraudster and sadly spread by a misled media.

Vaccines protect us from harmful infections before coming into contact with them. Vaccines help our natural defenses build resistance towards them. They've also been around for more than 100 years, so why is there so much resistance towards them?

There were already anti-vaxxers in the 1800s, and well, their movement died out when the smallpox vaccine successfully eradicated smallpox. All was quiet for most of the 20th century until 1998 when a study linking Autism and the MMR vaccine made waves worldwide.

In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a small study in the Lancet magazine linking the MMR vaccine to autism. His findings were later discovered to be fraudulent, but not before they had led to widespread parental anxiety about vaccination and declining rates of immunization against preventable diseases like measles.

Upon closer examination of his paper, it was clear that most of the claims were circumstantial. It also lacked any proof from formal clinical tests. Even his conclusion said that it did not prove an association between the MMR vaccine and autism. Many doctors were refuting his claims, and those that took part in his study had their names removed from the final document. The Lancet even had to publish a prominent disclaimer saying (and we paraphrase): PLEASE DONT BELIEVE THAT OTHER PAPER. IT WILL CAUSE PUBLIC MAYHEM AND POTENTIAL DEATH.

But the damage was done. Wakefield had held a press conference immediately after his study came out, and the press - who did not read the whole paper - ran with it and spread the word. Many in the media supported him, giving him lots of airtime. He kept telling parents, despite his study, they should still get their children vaccinated - just not the 3-in-1 MMR vaccine but a single dose measles shot.

It would take another 12+ years for investigative journalists to discover that Wakefield faked most of his study and had developed a single-shot measles vaccine that he planned to sell globally. He only published a "study" for parents to panic, reject the current MMR vaccine, and use his new one.

In the fallout of this discovery, Wakefield lost his medical license and moved to America, fleeing England in shame. It is also a preview of sorts to what is happening today. The 1998 MMR vaccine fiasco clearly showed how uncontrolled media could incite society into throwing science away, similar to what we currently witness (though it is social media this time) during the Covid19 pandemic.

Today, 23 years later, even after this study was debunked, redacted and proven as a fraud, he still has many followers. Because of the fear he sowed, anti-vaccine sentiments remain, potentially undermining the medical community's efforts to keep everyone safe and healthy.

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