July 28, 2010
2 min read

Antivaccine movement: History, current effects on immunization

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The antivaccine movement, which has made it possible for the return of several vaccine-preventable diseases, has progressed for more than 20 years and continues to distort the public’s perception of immunization, a speaker said at the 15th Richard J. Duma/National Foundation for Infectious Diseases Annual News Conference and Symposium on Infectious Diseases.

The natural history of immunization programs involves several phases, according to Paul A. Offit, MD, of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Infectious Diseases in Children Editorial Board member.

“When incidence of disease is high, people are frightened of the disease, and getting the public to vaccinate is easy,” Offit said. “During the second phase, vaccination rates begin to plateau, and during the third phase, which is occurring now, you see a loss of confidence in vaccines.”

He said many young parents today have not only grown up in the relative absence of vaccine-preventable diseases but also do not see them circulating now.

“Vaccination actually becomes a matter of faith, and as we see a loss in that kind of faith, we start to see an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases. That’s where we are now,” Offit said.

This loss in faith can be traced back to 1982, according to Offit, when a documentary, titled DTP: Vaccine Roulette, aired on television in the United States. The film suggested that the whole-cell pertussis vaccine could cause permanent brain damage and depicted the lives of children who developed severe disabilities after vaccination.

After the show aired, an advocacy group, now dubbed the National Vaccine Information Center, formed and would eventually become a powerful force behind the antivaccine movement. Within 1 month, a congressional hearing had also been called to review data on vaccine safety.

Despite the significant benefits that immunization has provided, vaccines have been scrutinized for a variety of reasons, Offit said. Some claimed that the Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine caused diabetes, whereas others cited pneumococcal vaccines as the source of seizures in children.

The human papillomavirus vaccine, however, has recently been hit the hardest, Offit said, with some attributing blood clots, strokes and chronic fatigue syndrome to the HPV vaccine. Although studies have since demonstrated the vaccine’s safety, some have said they still feel that the HPV vaccine was more harmful than helpful, he said.

The argument that vaccines cause autism is also at the center of interest. Many public figures have told compelling personal stories about their children developing autism after immunization, and this greatly affected the general population. “It’s hard to combat an emotional appeal with scientific data,” Offit said.

Staunch believers may hold true to the antivaccine sentiment, but theories for why vaccines are unsafe keep changing. Reasons have ranged from concerns about combination vaccines to the negative effects of thimerosal to the general feeling that children receive too many vaccines too soon.

Low rates of vaccination have led to the return of several vaccine-preventable diseases, including the current pertussis outbreak in California, the 2008 measles epidemic and the 2009 mumps epidemic in New Jersey and New York, according to Offit.

Many parents, however, remain open to discussion about vaccine safety. “Eighty-five percent of parents are concerned but reassurable,” he said. “Most people have just heard a lot of information and want to know the truth. They just need to hear information in a compelling and cogent way.”

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