When a likely presidential candidate weighs in on the side of charlatans and hucksters, the national debate has reached the point of absurdity.
Such is the case surrounding discussion about childhood vaccines. Such is the case involving Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul, who by all indications is positioning for a run at the presidency, recently echoed the beliefs of many ill-informed people when he said, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”
It should be noted that Paul did not specifically target the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, which inexplicably has become the focus of widespread backlash. But it also should be noted that there is no evidence beyond the anecdotal to support Paul’s assertion, and that as a trained ophthalmologist he should have some understanding of the difference between correlation and causation. As Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, said, “Like all biological products, you can never say anything is 100 percent safe. But after millions of doses given around the world, I can tell you that adverse events are extremely rare.”
Schaffner has mountains of scientific data to support his position. Paul and those who subscribe to a growing anti-vaccine movement in this country have nothing more than anecdotes and snake-oil salesmen on their side.
Which makes this an appropriate time to explore the genesis of the anti-vaccine movement. In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield wrote a research paper for the medical journal The Lancet in which he suggested a link between childhood vaccines and autism. What Wakefield didn’t mention is that he had been paid by trial lawyers hoping to cash in by blaming vaccines for their clients’ autism. What he also didn’t mention is that he had applied for a patent on his own measles vaccine, and therefore had good reason to discredit the current vaccine.
Since then, Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited. He is banned from practicing medicine, and by 2010 The Lancet had entirely retracted his findings. Yet the damage he caused is not so easily retracted. Triggered by Wakefield’s fraudulent claims, the anti-vaccine movement has grown over the past 15 years, and now we are seeing its impact.
Measles, a disease that 15 years ago was declared eradicated in the United States, has had a rebirth in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 102 confirmed new cases in January, with a majority of them stemming from an outbreak at Disneyland in Southern California. As The Washington Post summarized, “To put it another way, we’ve had about twice as many new measles cases in the past 31 days as we did in all of 2012.”
In other words, vaccines are effective, and the movement against them is a shameful combination of ignorance and bluster that ignores time-honored science in favor of quackery. In the process, many parents have put not only their children at risk but have endangered others. Some are not able to be vaccinated because of other medical conditions; children younger than 1 typically are not vaccinated; and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to measles.
The expanding measles outbreak in the United States serves as an irrefutable lesson in the power of vaccinations. Considering that the disease was eradicated in this country many years ago, the thought that we need to have this discussion is the height of absurdity.