Public health relies on vaccines as a measure to mitigate an increasing risk of widespread pandemic. Vaccines are created to be implemented collectively, a concept known as “herd immunity.” The mechanism of herd immunity depends on the vaccination of a majority of any given population to reduce the likelihood that those who are not properly vaccinated will contract or transmit the disease. Scientists create vaccines to work for the vast majority of people, but like all medication they can vary in their effectiveness from person to person. In order to minimize the chances of disease spreading, medical researchers urge everyone, barring those with medical restrictions, to be immunized and suggest a 96%–99% vaccination rate for highly contagious diseases.
Despite the urgings of the scientific community to vaccinate, vaccination rates have been declining for decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the rate of measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) inoculation has dropped consistently over the past three years. During the 2017–2018 school year, MMR vaccination among kindergarteners was recorded to be down to 94.4%, 2.2% below the recommended level. Most of the unvaccinated children studied did not have a medical exemption from these often mandatory vaccinations. Widespread fear of perceived risks of vaccination is cited as the primary reason many have opted out of vaccinating their children.
Anti-vaccination proponents are a varied group with a variety of causes and ideals in mind to back their arguments against vaccines. Anti-vaccine sentiment has been commonly based in both religious and secular views, rebellion against government regulations and skepticism of the scientific/medical community. In the 1800s vaccines were seen by many Christians as unholy because they rejected supernatural punishment for humanity in the form of disease; in Britain, people argued that mandatory vaccination laws passed violated individual free will.
In recent years the resurgence of anti-vaccination sentiment is largely related to a general distrust of scientific findings, skepticism of the interests of the medical community and rebellion against vaccine regulation. Common anti-vaccine arguments include beliefs that mandatory vaccinations are an invasion of free will, and that legislation should not force children to get vaccinated. This has created a legislative debate concerning grounds on which exemptions can be made to otherwise mandatory vaccines. The debate concerns whether or not secular or religious arguments should be allowed, or if medical exemptions be the only allowed way to avoid vaccination. Most scientists suggest that only medical exemptions should be allowed until the population is well within the limits for successful herd immunity.
There exists a vocal contingent of parents concerned with perceived risks involved in vaccination. One common fear is the risk of vaccines causing febrile seizures. Febrile seizures occur when a child, usually aged six months to five years, has a seizure due to an increased temperature. Because some vaccines can sometimes cause an increase in temperature, they can also put a child at risk of a febrile seizure. Five percent of children get febrile seizures as a result of illness in general. They typically last around 1–2 minutes and rarely result in long term damage or consequences.
Yet another vocal contingent of anti-vaccination parents was generated by the claims of former medical researcher and gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield published a study that concluded the MMR vaccine can result in autism in young children. His findings were ultimately debunked and his medical license was revoked as a result. It was later revealed that his research was funded by litigators who opposed vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield’s claims had already spread across Europe and North America, causing skepticism of vaccines and feelings that people were betrayed by the medical community. Studies refuting Wakefield’s research did not receive equal attention and were largely too late to persuade those who had already accepted the anti-vaccination rhetoric.
Due to Wakefield’s studies, among other factors, vaccination rates plummeted worldwide. In some parts of London, MMR vaccine rates dropped as low as 61%, and U.S nationwide MMR vaccination rates dropped by 2%. This resulted in multiple measles outbreaks throughout the 2000s and early 2010s. In 2019 the CDC recorded 1,282 cases of measles in the United States.
Illustration by Greer Siegel