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When I was 4 or 5, I received the first vaccine that I remember. As we walked into the office, the doctor warmly smiled and comforted me in a nice, calm voice, “it’ll be fine.” I had never seen any of them before, but my mom reassured me that they were nice people -- and being the naive child I was, I listened to her.
Sitting on a comfy bench, waiting for the nurse to gather supplies, I didn’t have a good idea of what was happening, so I smiled innocently as the nurse turned around. Then, I saw the needle -- and that's when the screaming started. It was extremely intimidating, seeing the pointed spear caused my heart to race.
It was blurry from there, I remember being held down by my mother and a brief moment of pain when the nurse gave me the shot. I cried a lot, and my arm went numb. Afterwards, the pain lessened, and it turns out it wasn’t too bad after all. My mother explained to me later, to the extent of what I could understand, the benefits of vaccines. There wasn’t any real logical reason not to take shots, except for the fear of needles, but the pain wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced(I still have scars from when I scraped both my elbows and knees when I flew off my bike!).
The Origin of Vaccines
The fear of vaccines dates back to the 19th century, in England, where widespread smallpox vaccination began. One of the very first vaccines was created when Edward Jenner, an apprentice of George Harwick, did a few cowpox experiments. Jenner heard a lot of tales about dairymaids who were protected from smallpox naturally after having suffered from cowpox.
After thinking about this for a bit, Jenner had a brilliant idea. He thought that cowpox not only protected against smallpox but also could be transmitted from one person to another as a way of protection.
So, Jenner looked around for people to use as basically guinea pigs, and this wasn’t too difficult for him, considering that smallpox was pretty common and most people would try almost anything to get rid of it. He soon found a young dairymaid named Sarah Nelms who had fresh cowpox lesions on her, and a young boy named James Phipps.
Then, he performed the inoculation process, by taking a part of the lesion and injecting it into the boy. It’s surprising that the only side effects were mild fever and a loss of appetite, until the boy became immune to smallpox! Somehow James agreed to having part of a lesion stuck inside him, and then infected with smallpox again to test if he is immune.
Needless to say, it seems that this unique experiment protected people from smallpox. It was an amazing breakthrough, and the vaccine saved countless lives. However, despite this fact, the vaccine was immediately met with criticism. People had different reasons to be suspicious of it, including sanitary, religious, scientific, and political problems.
It sounds ridiculous to not take a medicine that could save a life, but the methods of inserting the vaccine into the person’s body was a lot more different (and painful) than it is today. Nowadays, a nurse or doctor grabs a needle with the vaccine inside, and sticks it into the arm of the patient. This already seems a bit painful to imagine, but try picturing how it was during the 1800s. They didn’t have fancy needles to inject the vaccine, and they didn’t even have proper cleaning salve to wipe the patient's arm. Frankly, doctors back then didn’t even have the idea of giving a shot, and the only thing they shared is that it was applied on the arm.
Their method was to score the flesh on the patient’s arm (basically cutting it open), and inserting lymph from the blister of another person who was vaccinated earlier. Sounds unpleasant, right? Not just was this extremely painful, but doctors weren’t always the cleanest back then, and one could risk getting the wound dirty.
These reasons, among others, caused a lot of opposition to vaccines, and this only increased when the government created a law to making it mandatory for infants up to 3 months old to take a vaccine. People began arguing for their liberty and rights to control their own bodies.
This reluctance was on somewhat reasonable grounds. The idea of vaccines was brand new, and there were always risks to it. This was the first stage of the anti-vaccination movements. In the development of these movements, the attitude of the people were affected by four main factors: public opinion, sanitation, methods, and knowledge. The reason that the resistance to vaccines was somewhat understandable was because there was very little of all few factors. Public opinion wasn’t terribly high, since it had just come out, and not many people liked the idea of having their arms cut up. Sanitation definitely wasn’t great, since most doctors didn’t even wash their hands! The methods were painful, and a lot worse than necessary, considering that nowadays we just use a needle. Finally, there wasn’t that much knowledge of the subject, since the idea was just discovered.
However, as vaccines continued to develop and advance along with technology, so did anti-vaccine movements. Even though vaccines became more safe and less gruesome, people continued to resist the idea of injecting their children with chemicals, though they would greatly benefit them.
Modern Anti-Vaccination Beliefs
Towards the second stage of the anti-vaccine movements, the factors generally became more positive. Public opinion became more positive as the people became more used to the idea of vaccines. Sanitation became better, since doctors eventually discovered bacteria and realized that washing their hands was a pretty good idea. The methods were less and less painful, with the discovery of needles. Finally, the knowledge increased over time, with more information being discovered about vaccines.
Modern anti-vaccine movements was never very serious, until the 1990s. In this final stage, vaccines had reached their peak. Public opinion was very high, since it had saved many lives. Sanitation was great, since doctors finally learned to appropriately sanitize themselves. The methods weren’t entirely painful, unless you were scared of needles. There was also a large amount of knowledge, after a century of research. Despite all these facts, anti-vaccines still existed.
It started in 1998, when researcher Andrew Wakefield and some of his colleagues published a study on Lancet, a prominent English medical journal, that claimed that there was a connection between the MMR vaccine (mumps-measles-rubella) and autism. His idea was that the vaccine contains a live virus, which can cause in susceptible children a chronic measles infection. This causes gastrointestinal disturbances, including “leaky gut” syndrome, which then allows for certain toxins and chemicals, like those from bread and dairy that are normally broken down by the gut, to enter the bloodstream where they can access and damage the developing brain.
Although the research was small and preliminary, it sparked an incredible amount of resistance to vaccines. As a result, MMR compliance in Great Britain decreased drastically, causing a surge of preventable diseases, due to something called herd immunity. Generally, if enough people in a city or town are immune to a disease or have taken the vaccine, the disease basically disappears, since it prevents the spread of the sickness. That’s happened to many diseases, but when people stop taking vaccines and less people are immune, then the disease can start spreading again and take more lives. One would think people would see this pattern and actually start taking the vaccine again, but many people continued to not take vaccines.
After this report, many follow-up studies were conducted, and soon, it became clear that there was no link whatsoever between MMR and autism. For example, in one study, by the British Medical Journal found that autism rates continued to grow even where MMR vaccination rates decreased.
Generally, this wouldn’t have been a huge problem. If it was just a scientific mistake, it would’ve been fine, and it would just be edited. However, investigative reporters discovered that Wakefield was literally being paid to perform faulty research, and his laboratory was knowingly contaminated with the diseases he had described in his research that weren’t from the vaccine. All this research among other things caused the medical council to review the paper and render Wakefield’s research incorrect.
Now, a normal person, even a supporter of Wakefield, would look upon this incident and think: “What a corrupt scientist! It would probably be good for me to start taking vaccines again.” The truth, surprisingly enough, was quite the opposite. His supporters continued to support him and not take vaccines, treating him as a martyr and saying that all the evidence piled up against him was a conspiracy to hide the true nature of the vaccines.
This surprising belief has continued until this day. More research from other scientists have attempted to show the link of MMR vaccines and autism, but in a different way. Another popular theory popped up that stated that the vaccines contained a mercury based preservative in unhealthy amounts, and caused neurological damage to children’s brains. Now, it’s understandable that people would be scared about this. It's a common fact that mercury is poisonous, and any parent wouldn’t want their child to take a medicine if it had dangerous chemicals in it. Although it is true that vaccines contain a mercury based preservative and mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, toxicity always depends on the dose, since a large enough dose of pretty much anything could kill you. Even something such as water could kill you if you drank enough of it, and people don’t go around being scared of something with water in it.
The vaccines given had a very small amount of mercury in it, barely enough to do anything to even an infant’s body. Despite the fact that this study had also been disproven, people have continued to cling on to it like they had with Wakefield’s idea.
Unsurprisingly, many people attempted to get this to court. In June of 2007, Michelle Cedillo, a child whose parents claimed she got autism from vaccines, made their case to the Autism Omnibus, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims that was ruled by three special masters appointed for the specific case. Not only did Cedillo’s family send their case to court, but they were supported by over 4,000 families, who all filed lawsuits.
Even more unsurprising, the court ruled completely against the families and denied their want for compensation. They ruled that there was no connection between vaccines and autism, therefore their request was invalid.
Despite these court rulings, people still cling to the anti-vaccine belief. In a recent occurrence in Chicopee, Massachusetts a resident named Kathryn Riffenburg had a newborn child but refused to give him vaccines. He soon developed whooping cough. Amidst strained breathing and swelling so severe that his face became unrecognizable, he spent his last moments on earth. By the end, his face was so disfigured that his parents had a closed casket funeral.
All around the world, hundreds of thousands of deaths like this happen, although they are easily preventable. From measles alone, 134,000 people die each year which is, to put into perspective, about 15 deaths an hour! There are no good reasons to not take vaccines, and it just takes more lives not just each day, but each second. By avoiding vaccines, diseases of the past are slowly re-emerging. No matter how much one hates shots, it is nothing compared to costs of not taking it. Years of research and arguments have shown this, and it is simply unreasonable and morally irresponsible to ignore it. It risks your and everyone around you’s lives. By not taking vaccines, people are destroying communities from the inside. Taking a shot is a small price to pay, considering the costs of not taking it. As Eula Bliss once said: “Imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community.”