Updated: Oct 11, 2020
By Alexia Bove
Although largely associated with the modern era, the anti-vaccination movement has existed for centuries. Its roots date back to the original form of vaccinations, which were direct inoculations with sores straight off the body of an infected patient. Since its inception, the groundwork of the anti-vaccination movement has been the belief in bodily autonomy, the right of a person to govern what happens to their body, free of external coercion. This ethical concern remains a part of the modern resistance, however it now finds itself overshadowed by allegedly scientific claims about the potential dangers of vaccination.
1998: Ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield publishes a now infamous paper in The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal. This paper would prove to cause a major shift in how the world views not only vaccinations, but also science in general. Wakefield’s paper claimed there was a direct causal link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children. Upon publishing, the paper received immediate criticism from the scientific community for an obvious lack of scientific integrity - no controls were used, only twelve cases were examined, and the “evidence” presented relied heavily on recall of events by the parents of the children involved (Godlee, Smith, & Marcovitch, 2011). As scientists around the world scrambled to test the validity of Wakefield’s claims, the public began to panic as word of the apparent discovery reached them. Based on the information given to the public by the media, a poll of over a thousand people in 2003 found that 53% believed that there were valid data behind both sides of the MMR vaccine debate, while only 23% reported knowing that the vast majority of the evidence supported the safety of the MMR vaccine (Dobson, 2003). How could such obviously bad science, with drastic social implications, be conducted by supposed medical professionals?
The answer to this started to come out in the years following the paper’s release, as the British Medical Journal, The Sunday Times, and Channel 4 began investigating the story behind Wakefield’s research (Deer, 2011)
The list of faults behind Wakefield’s paper could be another article in itself, but one highlight of his wrongdoings includes accepting bribes from lawyers looking to profit off of lawsuits against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. It also later came out that Wakefield was working on a patent for his own vaccine alternative to the “unsafe” MMR vaccine. Sounds familiar, right? While the impact of Wakefield’s paper on the anti-vaccination movement was no doubt substantial, it’s an example of a single symptom of a much larger disease. Another is one that we’re all currently faced with.
Life during a pandemic has brought the word ‘unprecedented’ into many peoples’ vocabularies, with extraordinary events seeming to occur every day. Unfortunately, the scientific community is not immune to this. Research is presented differently during a pandemic - pre-print forums, accelerated peer review, and intense social pressure all drive the rapid release of information. There is a need for fast-paced information in order to make real-time decisions that could save the lives of many, yet with this speed comes a major issue: sometimes the narrative shifts as more data is gathered. In March, there were serious questions about both the efficacy and practicality of the general public wearing masks, and therefore they were not officially recommended. However, when both anecdotal and laboratory evidence proved they played a significant role in slowing virus transmission, the recommendations changed (Peeples, 2020). To those in the scientific field, this plays out as a fairly normal example of the scientific process. However, when faced with a total 180 switch like this, it can be difficult to discern whether something was the best information available at the time, or bad science being recklessly promoted.
At a time like this, when science has actively entered the public’s life, the complex relationship between the scientific community and the public is revealed. Like any relationship, both sides need to put in the work. Scientists need to take responsibility for the data they produce, because as seen in the case of the Wakefield paper, even false information carries weight. What’s the point of doing research on matters affecting the public if the information is not presented in a way that the public can interpret? On the other hand, it’s up to the public to put the information to proper use - no more ignoring facts because they don’t align with one’s personal beliefs, whether it be on vaccination or mask wearing.
Deer, B. (2011). How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money. Bmj, 342(Jan11 4), C5258-C5258. doi:10.1136/bmj.c5258
Dobson R. (2003). Media misled the public over the MMR vaccine, study says. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 326(7399), 1107. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7399.1107-a
Godlee, F., Smith, J., Marcovitch, H. Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. BMJ.2011;342:c7452
Peeples, L. (2020). Face masks: What the data say. Nature, 586(7828), 186-189. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-02801-8
Rao, T. S., & Andrade, C. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation,
retraction, and fraud. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136032
Wakefield, A. (1998). RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet, 351(9103). doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0