In the year 2010, the deadliest American outbreak of whooping cough in fifty years occurred in California. Ten infants lost their lives as a result of this horrifying incident, and many more contracted the disease and suffered serious symptoms. When we picture low vaccination rates, we form a visual picture of some far-off developing country that lacks resources and education, but we don’t consider that often this is a reality in places much closer to home. In fact, vaccination rates in Los Angeles are lower than those in South Sudan, where civil war prevents families from vaccinating. The belief that life-threatening diseases, such as meningitis, have been eradicated and are no longer dangerous has created a sense of complacency among parents in the Western world, and it’s because of this that several of these same Western nations have been seeing the resurrection of conditions that had been gone for quite a while.
Before I start, I’ll acknowledge: there are children who can’t safely be vaccinated due to weak immune systems or life-threatening conditions, but obviously I’m not going to argue that we should vaccinate them. However, these children are a very small minority compared to the amount of children who aren’t vaccinated for other reasons.
So what are these other reasons?
Some families interpret religious texts in a way that restricts vaccination. For instance, some individuals (and note that I’m not claiming that any specific entire religions hold these beliefs) are of the opinion that we should cure all illnesses through the will of God, and that any kind of modification to the sacred human body is sinful. There are also groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses which basically just restrict all needles.
But the more common reasons for not vaccinating are misguided views around the efficacy and effects of vaccines in general. Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor, published a study indicating a causal relationship between MMR vaccines and autism. Despite the fact that he was later proven to have been funded by lawyers looking to sue the MMR corporation, the damage had already been done: many celebrities endorsed Wakefield and as a result people internalized these false and harmful statistics. Organizations such as Vaccine Choice Canada appeal to parents’ innate instinct to protect their children against risks, and consequently harm vaccination rates nationally.
One main argument for parental choice regarding vaccines is that it only affects that child, who is effectively under the jurisdiction of the legal guardian. When speaking of the benefits of vaccine, we often focus on the child that is being vaccinated. But arguably the main reason for vaccination isn’t directly for the child themself. Rather, it contributes to herd immunity. Simply put, herd immunity means that when the majority of a group of people are vaccinated, it prevents the ability of the virus to spread throughout the population.
Herd immunity also protects demographics whose immune systems are particularly vulnerable, such as very young children, the elderly, and people with immune disorders. The vaccination rate required for herd immunity varies from vaccine to vaccine, but it’s usually around 70 to 95 percent of people. Unfortunately, a surprisingly large proportion of Western areas have dropped behind in required vaccination rates, which is why they have seen outbreaks of diseases like measles. These outbreaks can occur in geographically concentrated communities with specific beliefs regarding vaccination, for example in 1990, when a small orthodox Christian community in Philadelphia had a major measles outbreak.
How do we go about improving vaccination rates?
Well, in nations where this isn’t currently the case, vaccines need to be free. Many developing nations still lack the healthcare infrastructure to provide vaccinations for all, which is problematic to the spread of disease, particularly in areas which aren’t able to access treatment once viruses have been contracted. But in other countries, the problem of low vaccination rates persists. For those countries, combatting the ignorance about vaccines can be difficult. Some have suggested mandatory vaccination, but critics of this solution say it exacerbates the anti-vaccine movement. This is because anti-vaccination groups are already often anti-establishment, believing that the government’s campaign for vaccines is a conspiracy or some kind of plot with ulterior motives, and making these mandatory could reinforce these beliefs.
Other solutions might be more realistic. In France, vaccinations are mandatory in order for children to be able to attend public school, which has successfully increased MMR vaccination rates. In Ontario, there is a similar policy, except children can have religious exemptions provided their parents attend extensive vaccination education programs and complete a lot of paperwork, which has deterred all but the most genuinely religious families from exempting their children from vaccines. Generally, in order for these efforts to work, it has to be significantly more effort to avoid vaccination than it is to just the vaccine.
As individuals, the most important thing is to make sure we are up to date on our vaccinations, and do our part to dispel the harmful narratives of the anti-vaccination movement. Let’s do our part to protect ourselves and others against life-threatening diseases.