A letter to anti-vaxxers
MICHAEL J. SMITH
Health Research and Policy Intern
November 2016- June 2017
Based in New York City Michael is completing a Master's of Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He previously has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology and has over five years of experience in scientific research and human health. Michael has co-authored a published paper in a national genetics journal and is co-authoring a manuscript to be published in 2017.
To the community of anti-vaxxers,
At one point, almost everyone thought the world was flat. We have long used intuitive theories in science to explain the unknown - and often, after experimentation, improvements in technology or just more knowledge, those intuitive theories are proven wrong. Maybe that’s why people are so comfortable with falsehoods in science.
Humans aren’t responsible for climate change, right? Don’t vaccines cause autism? Maybe this pseudo-science is spread because scientists are not involved involved in the dissemination of information - experts are simply not involved. We leave that up to talking heads on TV and talk show hosts, and take it as gospel. Alternative facts in politics are met with outrage and aggressive fact-checking, but why then are they so commonplace in science? People hear these results on TV or read about them online and instantly think they are the expert. We need to stop pretending to be experts
When it comes to vaccines, this is a dangerous game that leads to gaps in immunizations and outbreaks. With the spread of misinformation, deadly diseases are downplayed - like measles. Instead of talking about mercury content in vaccines, they really should be talking about the fact that vaccination saves an estimated three million children annually. Instead of listening to celebrities talk about vaccinations, we should remember that before the MMR vaccine was developed in 1963, three to four million Americans annually got the measles. These examples of alternative facts about vaccines has helped contribute to the spread of a disease that was eliminated in the US in 2000.
Measles is one of the most infectious viruses that has ever been studied by virologists - one infected individual can infect up to twenty others. It is a serious respiratory disease that causes fever, rash and brain swelling - and result in death, especially in infants too young to receive the vaccine.
At present, measles outbreaks are happening all across the US - with infections reaching numbers that have not been seen for decades. States like Minnesota, Arizona and California are seeing a sharp rise in infections, and have even called for health officials to declare a state of emergency.
This recent surge of outbreaks can largely be blamed on anti-vaccination sentiment. The conversation between anti-vaxxers and everyone else is intense - like most arguments grounded in heresay and falsehoods, anti-vaxx forums and message boards are full of stories, anecdotes, personal tales and thousands and thousands of comments. One message board I visited had a thread with over 32,000 comments. But, where are these notions coming from?
Maybe people don’t understand the scientific process or peer review. They probably have no idea how difficult it is to secure funding for research, write grants, perform studies and get published. Maybe they don’t understand what it takes to get your PhD. Most PhD students spend an average of five years performing experiments and writing their dissertation - and typically another four to five years as postdoctoral fellows. Is it possible that every reputable scientific organization, every peer-reviewed paper, every PhD student, every doctor, every research article and study across the globe are sinister, corrupt and untrustworthy? No. I work full-time in a research lab. Let me say that real research, performed by people with PhD’s and years of scientific experience takes time - and it takes patience and perseverance.
Real science is rigorous, long-term and slow. In the three and a half years that I have worked in a lab, one project I worked on got published. Another paper that I co-authored has been rejected from three separate journals - for reasons ranging from lack of sufficient data to the fact that the paper does not add enough significant new insight on the subject. And this is a paper about a specific protein involved in cell orientation. In flies (yes, the ones that fly around your apartment).
So imagine how long it takes and how difficult it is to publish a paper that is about humans - or kids. Many papers have been published about the efficacy of vaccines in children - thousands of children have been studied, or in some papers, over a million. The MMR vaccine is simply not associated with autism.
Maybe these people don’t know how good they have it in the US, or how easy it is to get a MMR vaccination shot. In the US, it’s as simple as walking into the pediatrician's office. Ask for it - get it. Simple as that.
Not so elsewhere. Compare what we have in the US to a recent outbreak of Measles in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nearly 40,000 cases Measles were confirmed in 2015 - and the vaccination campaign remote villages was grueling. Reaching farmers, fishermen and more rural communities was an intense endeavor - all while maintaining the cold chain - the optimal storage temperature of the vaccine (two to eight degrees Celsius - anything over or under, and the vaccine is useless). Not an easy task when delivering a vaccine in a region with drastic daily temperature shifts. Still, the vaccines were delivered by boat to families in the region. Children proudly lined up to receive their vaccination card -as they knew the vaccine would save their lives.
The skepticism we see in the US is almost embarrassing when juxtaposed against scenarios like this. And personally, it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the thought process of parents and caregivers - when something exists that is proven to protect your family and friends, yet you don’t utilize it - it’s just vexing. I can’t fathom it - especially when I think about my dad.
My father was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. I know it doesn’t exist, but imagine if there was Parkinson’s vaccine - would I be skeptical or hesitant to give it to my dad? Absolutely not. If I knew it would help him with his walking, balance, movement and stop his tremors, then I would force my dad to have it. Because I love him, and I want him to be healthy. Isn’t that what should we want for everyone?
Whether it’s polio, measles, influenza - if you can prevent it or reduce the risk of someone getting sick or dying from theses diseases, then you should do it. We have an obligation to protect ourselves and each other - and that means vaccination. Modern social responsibility means trusting in the scientific and medical advances we have made as a global community, not dismissing proven methods as conspiracy. Perpetuating misinformation doesn’t help anyone - please stop being a part of the problem and help become a part of the solution.