When you think about it, humans are remarkably fragile little beings. In the days before modern medicine, a couple of fleas, rats and germs wiped out over a third of Europe. Infectious diseases, for a very long time, were the largest threat to mankind: the 6th century
Plague of Justinian knocked out an estimated 17 percent of the world’s population, the 1918 influenza pandemic decimated 5 percent of the world and malaria is estimated to have killed about half of all humans that have ever lived. It used to be so easy to kill us. Yet now thanks to sanitation, vaccination, insecticide, antibiotics and the like we have the luxury of dying in our 8th or 9th decade from ‘old-age’. We owe modern medicine a hell of a lot. Thanks to it, long gone are the days we used to die from easily curable diseases like mumps, measles or tuberculosis.
Or so we thought…
Spurred on by bogus science and downright lies, the anti-vax movement has blown up over the past decade with devastating consequences. In 2017, 110,000 people died from measles despite the disease being declared eradicated at the turn of the century. This figure was an increase of 22 per cent on the previous year. UNICEF released a report this summer revealing that more than 20 million children a year are missing their measles vaccine. Here in Ireland, infection rates have doubled as uptake rates for the MMR have fallen to 85 percent in parts of the country. As a result, there’s also been a nationwide outbreak of mumps with 1,600 confirmed infections this year alone. The World Health Organisation has declared the anti-vaccine movement a major global health crisis. These are serious diseases that can lead to fatal complications and vaccinating your children is the only way to prevent that heartbreak.
Why forego it?
The watershed moment for the anti-vax movement came in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published a paper in medical journal the Lancet suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The paper sent parents into a panic and is still knocking about today over 20 years later despite it being retracted from the Lancet and Wakefield’s medical license being revoked. The paper only reported on the cases of eight children (yes, only eight) whose autism became evident around the time of their first MMR injection. It’s important to note that children receive their first MMR injection between 12 and 15 months which is also the usual age that a child with autism spectrum disorder would present with the behavioural symptoms of autism anyway. There is no link between vaccines and autism and even if there was, denying your child a vaccine because of a potential risk of autism is extremely problematic. It implies you’d rather your child dying a horrific death at the hands of a preventable disease than have a child with autism. It’s an insult to people living with autism and it’s just plain wrong.
The vaccine’s biggest strength has become its biggest weakness. Those not vaccinating their children don’t remember the times when babies were born blind and deaf because their mothers suffered from measles or rubella during pregnancy, when whole classes of children were wiped out by smallpox or when tuberculosis killed thousands of Irish children and adults each year. This was the reality of life in Ireland in the 1940’s and 50’s, our parents’ parents’ era. Our parents, and now us, have grown up in a new age in child health. We know nothing of the catastrophic impact of these diseases and maybe that’s why anti-vaxxers refuse to vaccinate their children.
This month, the HPV vaccine was rolled out to boys in their first year of secondary school for the first time in Ireland. The vaccine was originally introduced to 12-year-old girls in 2010 with the main aim of reducing HPV-introduced cervical cancer. HPV or human papilloma virus is the cause of five percent of all cancers. This introduction of the vaccine for boys is hugely instrumental in the eradication of HPV-related illness in Ireland. Unfortunately, like any vaccine, there has been a tremendous amount of opposition to the HPV vaccine. The main source of pushback is coming from members and supporters of the ‘Reactions and Effects of Gardasil Resulting in Extreme Trauma’ (REGRET) group. Mothers in the group allege their daughters experienced chronic headaches, muscle and joint pain and memory loss after being administered the vaccine. In a way, I feel for the mothers grappling for an explanation as to why their daughters have fallen ill. But this isn’t it. Former IMO president Dr Hogan has said “there is no scientific evidence that links these conditions with the HPV vaccine” and that “anti-expert bias” and “fake news” are to blame for falling uptake rates. The HPV vaccine has been proven time and again to be safe and not only that, but effective. Effective at preventing cancer. Do you have any idea how big of a deal that is? We’re hugely privileged to be alive at the same time as a vaccine that prevents cancer, those trying to
discourage others from availing of it lose my respect.
Last week, I tuned into the documentary ‘Laura Brennan: This Is Me’. It follows the final few months of the life of HPV vaccine campaigner, Laura Brennan and it was absolutely heart wrenching. Laura was only 26 when cervical cancer took her life. The HPV vaccine wasn’t yet available when she was in school, but had she had the HPV vaccine, Laura would still be alive today. Her story, although tragic, is truly remarkable. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer in August 2017 around the same time as the HSE was tackling falling uptake rates of the HPV vaccine. Only 51 percent of girls were availing of the vaccine where previously it was 87 percent, and Laura saw this as her “call to action”. She spent the last couple of years of her life campaigning for the vaccine in the hopes other women could be spared her and her family’s pain and heartbreak. The documentary doesn’t hold back. It opens with a shot of Laura lying peacefully in her casket, her makeup is perfectly applied, and her multiple piercings are visible in her right ear, over the shot, Laura’s own voice narrates: “I am the reality of an unvaccinated girl”. Even lying in repose, Laura looks scarily normal, like she could be you or your daughter or someone you know. Scenes of Laura on her deathbed are itertwined with old home movies of her as a child, pulled together under a poignant soundtrack. It’s made to move you, to provoke a reaction that results in action. Discussing the decision to film on her deathbed, Laura said “if seeing me in that position stops someone from having to be in my position, I will film for as long as it takes.” Just before Laura’s death, the HSE indicated that uptake rates for the vaccine moved up to 70 percent but this isn’t enough for Laura, “I would like the vaccine rate to be 100 percent, that’s the legacy I want to leave behind.” This doesn’t end with Laura and the fight is only beginning. The HSE will continue to tackle the low uptake rates until they’re where they should be and that’s 100 percent.
Anti-vaxxers, it’s not just about you. While I find it easy to sympathise with people who are just trying to do right by their child in an increasingly terrifying world, you’re endangering lives and your dogma is based on fake science and lies. It kills people. All over the world. Vaccinations need herd immunity to succeed. By not vaccinating your child you put those unable to avail of vaccines, like immuno-compromised children, at extreme risk. You’re causing more harm than you know. I would favour Health Minister Simon Harris’ view that a mandatory vaccination scheme be put in place in schools and creches here in Ireland. Anti-vaxxers, you’ve had your fun but it’s time to give this issue back over to the experts.
Misinformation and scaremongering have led to the hugely dramatic drop off in the uptake rates of the MMR and HPV vaccines. Campaigns can only do so much to fight this. A mandatory vaccination scheme may be our only way forward to prevent more damage being done unless mindsets start changing and changing fast.