Vaccine history: dispelling the myths and overcoming history

It is a compelling argument–published in the New York Times Opinions section is the history of vaccinations and how many adults have come to question their safety and benefit.  Years of tainted information and bad press have made the campaign for widespread vaccination difficult to conquer.  The most well known incident was that of the publication in 1998 by a British medical journal that linked the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism.

The theory spread like wildfire and gave already skeptical parents yet another reason to refuse vaccinations for their children.  When in reality that report was deception in its most pure form.  The author, Andrew Wakefield supposedly received payment for the work from a prominent attorney who was involved in a lawsuit against a vaccine maker. Wakefield was stripped of his medical privileges just this past May.  No doubt the intentional fraud of the article was devastating to his career, but it also created major set backs in vaccination around the world. And according to the article nearly 1/5 of all Americans still believe that vaccines cause autism.

Vaccines have life saving benefits in many cases.  However, they certainly do not come without risks.  The history of vaccination fears started many years before Dr. Wakefield’s farse–beginning in 1802 with the theory that cowpox pus scratched into the arms of children could prevent smallpox–which was met with cartoons showing people with hooves and horns.

Over the course of several decades opponents to vaccines have cited imposition on their civil liberties–calling the practice “witchcraft.”  At the turn of the century vaccinations were forced upon many–literally. Across the country police, the U.S. Calvary and even the Texas Rangers offered physical force to impose vaccinations on anyone who fought back.

In 1901 vaccines took another blow after 9 school age children died from a vaccine that was supposedly contaminated with tetanus.  Then 13 more children died from tetanus after receiving a diptheria antitoxin.  Confidence in the system was shattered and it would take decades before anyone lined up for a vaccine again. Keep in mind one dramatic difference between vaccines then and now–with no safety measures in place, often vaccines were given with no quality checks, and no testing prior to administration.

As vaccines made a comeback in the years that followed, the only real way to gain confidence was to address the people directly. Through public meetings, and town hall gatherings health officials met and discussed individual fears–openly answering questions and explaining the benefits of vaccines.  Before long, many people were rolling up their sleeves–believing that vaccines were beneficial.

Approximately 40% of American parents refuse at least one of 10 childhood vaccines for their children.  Whether delayed or not given at all, many parents still fear side effects.  The Times calls for history to repeat itself.  If health officials would in fact address the issues instead of cloaking problems in secrecy and silence then perhaps they would find a more willing audience.


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