In recent weeks there have been protests denying that Covid-19 is a problem. Many of these people are also against vaccinations. Why?
Nowadays, vaccinations are very safe. Like all medications they do have side effects, but the chances of a vaccine causing significant harm are many times smaller than the harm that would be caused by the disease that they are vaccinating against.
Yet some parents do not vaccinate their children because of a belief that they cause harm. In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published falsified research claiming there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. His corruption was uncovered, his published research was retracted by The Lancet, and he was struck off as a doctor, but many parents remained so afraid of the MMR vaccine that uptake continued to fall and led to outbreaks of measles.
Measles can cause 1 in 500 children to get encephalitis and brain damage, compared to the possibility of 1 in a million children getting encephalitis as a result of having the MMR vaccine. Many studies conducted since then have concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism (including an 8 year longitudinal study of over 650,000 children in Denmark).
But in the past vaccinations were dangerous. The first vaccine against smallpox, a disease which killed many, was developed in the 1850s. There was little knowledge about bacteria and the need for hygiene, and so many vaccinated babies developed gangrene and died due to the spread of other infections.
The government at the time imposed fines for failure to get vaccinated, and there was protest movement against them. The rationale is that high levels of vaccination protect not only the individuals vaccinated, but the whole population. If a vaccine is 90% effective and taken by 90% of a population, then any freak infection is unlikely to find susceptible people to transmit to, and the unvaccinated are protected. If it is taken by only 80%, or 70%, and the disease is highly infectious, then freak infections will spread and hit the vaccinated, too.
In the 1950s there was a new vaccine against polio, which was then a huge killer. A bad batch where the virus was not deactivated led to 200,000 cases of polio, 200 cases of paralysis, and 10 deaths. But there had been outbreaks that killed over a thousand in short periods of time before the vaccine.
Despite everything, confidence remained high until the 1970s. Pregnant mothers in the US had been given synthetic hormones during pregnancy as part of a research trial without their knowledge, and those had doubled the rate of still-birth. Dr Mendelsohn exposed that, and encouraged patients to question their doctors. This started out as empowering patients. Then he went further to claim without good evidence that vaccines were harmful and to discourage mothers from getting their babies vaccinated.
In 1982 he supported a documentary about DPT (vaccination against diptheria, whooping cough and tetanus), which made false claims that it caused numerous serious illnesses in babies, including developmental delay and seizures. A campaign formed, called “Dissatisfied Parents Together” and now the “National Vaccine Information Centre”.
According to the Washington Post it is largely funded by Joseph Mercola who has “amassed a fortune” selling “natural health” products and donated $2.9 million to the campaign.
Today that history is feeding into Covid denying movements. At times governments and some doctors have betrayed public trust. In the past vaccinations have sometimes been dangerous. Today every vaccine available in most countries (with the possible exception of Russia and China) is very safe. But it can be difficult for people to know the truth.
Politicians lie, and research is often funded by pharmaceutical companies trying to turn a profit, and published by journals who also rely on profit. Social media and newspapers publicise headlines and click-bait that rarely tell the whole story.
But the research is there. Vaccines have saved countless lives. Despite the hype the vast majority of people do follow advice and most children are vaccinated.
We need science and medicine to be transparent, accessible and trustworthy. Research should be publicly funded without political interference. Questioning and skepticism of this government and authority is appropriate, but the answers to questions must be based on the best available evidence.
Good communication, and transparency are necessary to combat conspiracy theories, and give us the best chance of minimising death and illness from Covid 19.