Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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In Our View: Vaccine misinformation leads to harsh lessons

The Columbian

Not all that long ago, Clark County residents received a harsh reminder about the efficacy of vaccines and the importance of public health — and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic came along.

In early 2019, 71 cases of measles were confirmed during a monthslong outbreak in the area. As one of the centers for a nationwide outbreak that year, Clark County became an example of a dangerous tendency toward vaccine hesitancy.

Given the enmity that accompanied the COVID pandemic a year later, the measles outbreak seems like a relic from a quaint and distant time. And yet the United States has seemingly made little progress toward common sense since then.

We mention this because of a current measles outbreak in Ohio, primarily among unvaccinated children, and a surge in cases of chickenpox. And we mention it because the absurd debates about COVID vaccines have drowned out the facts behind a decadeslong anti-vaccine movement, which has its genesis in fraudulent science and hucksterism.

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. Nor did Wakefield mention that he had applied for a patent on his own measles vaccine, and therefore had good reason to demean the current vaccine.

Since then, Wakefield has been discredited, with numerous studies finding no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He is banned from practicing medicine, and by 2010, The Lancet had entirely retracted his findings.

Yet the damage caused is not so easily retracted. Triggered by Wakefield’s fraudulent claims, the anti-vaccine movement has grown over the past 25 years, and we have witnessed its impact throughout the COVID pandemic.

During 2022, a majority of COVID-related deaths in the United States have been among vaccinated people — a grossly misleading statistic because a strong majority of Americans are vaccinated. If 100 percent of U.S. residents were vaccinated, then 100 percent of deaths would be among vaccinated people.

As the Centers for Disease Control reports: “Unvaccinated people 12 years and older had 17 times the rate of COVID-associated deaths, compared to people vaccinated with a primary series and a booster dose. Unvaccinated people had eight times the rate of death as compared to people who only had a primary series.”

Statistics routinely reinforce the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine, echoing the results of vaccines for other diseases. The age of widespread vaccinations, which took hold during the second half of the 20th century, has transformed the notion of public health.

Along the way, COVID vaccines — like the measles, mumps, rubella series of shots — have been shown to be safe.

But the misinformation age, fueled by the ease with which fabrications can spread online, is threatening to roll back a century of progress. In 2000, measles were declared eliminated in the United States. While the threat of cases being carried from overseas remained, they were unlikely to spread with a vast majority of Americans being inoculated.

That has changed as more and more people decline to be vaccinated, leading to periodic outbreaks such as the one being seen now. It all is a reminder of the harsh lessons that have been learned in Clark County.