The news that measles has been officially eradicated in the U.K. (eradication in this context meaning that an illness has not been endemic for at least thirty-six months) is a relieving statistic, when this once-common illness can lead to complications as serious as pneumonia and encephalitis. But how can it have taken this long to vaccinate 95% of the British population against measles, when a licensed vaccination has existed for more than fifty years?
Measles was well on its way to being eradicated in the 1990s when a medical researcher named Andrew Wakefield and twelve other medical professionals published a paper in the British medical journal The Lancet, claiming that they had discovered a link between autism, gastrointestinal problems and the MMR vaccine. Although this paper was widely discredited and Wakefield had been officially banned from practicing medicine, the damage was already done; vaccination rates among British children plummeted from 90% to as low as 70% in some areas and numbers of measles cases began to increase again, especially among those in the 18-25 age bracket who would have missed their immunization at the height of the scandal.
However, as dubious as they have been proven to be, the General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield had been “dishonest” and disregarded the safety of his young patients – it seems that the circumstances around the theory of the MMR-autism link and its clear disproval are not enough evidence for some people that childhood vaccinations are safe. The “anti-vax” movement, often most vocal in the U.S., has also been gaining traction in Europe this year, with many parents choosing not to vaccinate their children in the belief that herd immunity will protect them. However, herd immunity can only function when between 90% and 95% of said herd is vaccinated – this postscript even being included in the Oxford Dictionary definition of the term. This means that those who have no choice but to rely on herd immunity, such as newborn babies and the immunocompromised, are put at risk.
The root of the problem seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about what vaccinations actually are – after all, one can easily find webpages like this one that, among a host of other scary-sounding claims, says that vaccinations contain pure mercury and the subsequent mercury poisoning creates autistic-like tendencies in vaccinated children. This fear of vaccinations as the cause of autism creates a massive stigma around the condition, implying that children would potentially be better off dead (a rare but potential complication of measles and, for unborn babies, rubella) than autistic. This view is rejected by many autistic people and their advocates, but unfortunately, convincing people that autism need not be a death sentence for the child or the parents cannot solve the whole problem. It is only with widespread, accessible and easily-understandable information on the ingredients and working methods of vaccinations that we as a society can stop the reemergence of life-threatening illnesses that could and should be nothing but a painful memory of the past.