Public domain image of the measles vaccine.
Public domain image of the measles vaccine.

The current measles outbreak has predominantly hit mostly affluent communities with large numbers of conscientious objectors, those who choose not to vaccinate due to their personal beliefs. Numerous articles, bloggers, and editorials have turned to public shaming. But is public shaming going to send people off to vaccinate?

Public shaming does little more than make us feel superior and allow us to vent our frustrations. It doesn’t change minds. So before we place blame, let’s address the concerns.

  1. Autism

Anti-vaccinators cited the 1998 Andrew Wakefield study linking MMR vaccine to autism in British children. The study prompted researchers to investigate further as is the case with any adverse reaction claim. Multiple studies have completely debunked this theory, his co-authors retracted their collaboration and The Lancet, a premier British medical journal retracted the paper. The British General Medical Council revoked his license for falsification of data. The science is solid: no causal link has been found. A contributor to the Annals of Pharmacotherapy wrote in one article, “The alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”

Many parents of autistic children will share their personal stories. Others will follow the science. Until we can find a specific cause of autism, there will be those who continue to believe the false information. However, since Wakefield’s study was debunked, the rates of vaccination in the UK have climbed, so there’s hope.

  1. Safety

Some believe that existence of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is evidence that adverse reactions are common. This is not a registry of proven adverse reactions. Scientists are continually evaluating vaccines for safety. Any potential adverse reaction is documented so it can be investigated. The risk of a moderate reaction to the measles vaccine, such as a seizure, is 1 in 3000. The risk of measles infection in an unvaccinated person when exposed is greater than 90%. The risk of death for those 90% is 1 in 1,000.

  1. Distrust of “Big Pharma”

Anti-vaccinators believe this is merely a money making scheme for corporations. Vaccine development requires Phase I, II, and III trials, often involving thousands of people. The cost from scientific development to testing to market can enter the hundreds of millions of dollars. That is not easily recouped in a vaccine your child receives once or twice at $20 each. Selling you a medication for a chronic disease such as heart disease or ADHD will make Big Pharma far more money than vaccines.

My frustration with Big Pharma is the opposite, they don’t invest enough in vaccine development. In response to this, Dr. Peter Hotez established the Sabin Institute for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Through a consortium and extensive fundraising (they can use more), they are developing vaccines for those diseases which don’t affect our affluent country but are nevertheless deadly in many parts of the world. If there was money in vaccines, the Sabin Institute wouldn’t need to exist, and Dr. Hotez wouldn’t have to hold out his hat on a regular basis.

  1. Distrust of Medical Professionals

Many believe they’re being lied to about ingredients. Thiomersal, a preservative containing ethyl mercury, is used in vaccines to prevent growth of bacteria or fungi. The level of mercury is tiny, less than 0.1% of all human exposure. Since the issue was first raised in 1999, extensive studies have been conducted. To date, absolutely no safety issues have been found with the level of mercury used in these vaccines. Note that only killed vaccines use thiomersal. So, oral poliovirus vaccine and MMR do NOT contain mercury. The flu mist, which is the nasal-administered flu vaccine also uses a live inactivated virus and so does not contain thiomersal. There is the potential for trace amounts of mercury to be in some vaccines during production, amounts so tiny they are not detectable.

  1. “I don’t want to put toxins in my child’s body.”

We try to eat organic, home grown vegetables as much as possible. We don’t eat meat and consume very little dairy. We also don’t want to put viruses into our kids’ bodies that can kill or seriously debilitate them. This was all too common before vaccines. So we put vaccines in our children to prevent them from getting those “toxins” that are so deadly. Of course, they’re more at risk of problems from air pollution in most US cities than any side effect from vaccines.

I’m a parent. I did not happily watch the nurse place the needle in my tiny baby’s legs. I ached for my 5 year old whose arm ached for days after his flu shot. I get it. But I’ve also seen kids die from flu and other vaccine preventable diseases. A few days of an achy arm and extra love from mom and dad were worth preventing a potentially deadly disease.

Shunning people concerned about the safety of vaccines isn’t going to win hearts and minds. We may not convince all anti-vaccinators to change their minds, but if we can alleviate the fears of just one of every 10, that’s a start. As public health professionals, it’s our responsibility to never stop educating.

*Featured/top image: Stock image via public domain.

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Cherise Rohr-Allegrini

Cherise Rohr-Allegrini is an infectious disease epidemiologist and consultant. She is currently the San Antonio Program Director for The Immunization Partnership. Dr. Rohr-Allegrini was the Pandemic Flu...