Ever since news of the first vaccine, smallpox, went public, there have been people who are skeptical of or completely against vaccination, especially when it comes to their children or themselves. The anti-vaccination view can be easily understood— it can be difficult to trust complete strangers to successfully concoct a substance that will be injected into your or a loved one’s body. Rumours such as vaccines infecting those vaccinated with the very illness that it was meant to fight or vaccines causing autism contribute to that fear as well. According to countless amounts of research and studies, vaccinations most likely do more benefit than damage.
In the late 20th century, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield conducted an investigation on the relationship between autism and the MMR (the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine), which was published in The Lancet, a very prestigious medical journal. A few years later, Wakefield’s coworkers discovered that the data, used to convince the public of a correlation between the MMR and autism, was falsified. They swiftly removed their names from the research papers, and the staff of The Lancet retracted the article. Wakefield’s medical license was then nullified. He had committed fraud, hoping to benefit financially from the ‘successful’ investigation and from those who believed that the MMR caused autism in their children.
There have not been any findings of a correlation between the MMR and autism in any of the many, many studies that have been conducted. Wakefield’s falsified data, however, has fabricated an incorrect belief, a lingering rumour, that the MMR somehow gives people autism. While the beliefs and qualms of people who are against vaccination may seem harmless, they actually increase the risk of infection for the people around them as well as for themselves.
Herd immunity is the protection given to those in the group who are vulnerable to the infection—the people who either choose not to vaccinate or cannot due to variables such as age or pregnancy—by those who are immune to that infection. Since the immune cannot get the infection, they cannot spread it, so the chance that the vulnerable will get it is much less than it would be in a group with no immune— a much lesser chance than if no one was vaccinated.
The percentage of people in the United States who have participated in vaccinations is currently greater than those who do not, so herd immunity is in effect; however, the fear of vaccines causing autism, etc. may be spreading quickly. If those who do not vaccinate become the majority, it puts people who cannot have certain vaccinations at risk. Such people are mostly pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those who do not have strong enough immune systems to handle them.
Just like most things, though, vaccines are not perfect, but that does not mean they are unsafe in general. Many different kinds have been made depending on what the disease — to be protected against — does to the body, but they all introduce the immune system to the threat of it, whether it’s through dead or weakened versions of the illness or strands of DNA (all called antigens) that teach the immune system of the enemy’s existence and how to fend it off. It’s due to these methods that the aforementioned people with weakened immune systems — either due to circumstances like cancer treatment or just generally having a weak immune system — are recommended to avoid being vaccinated. Depending on the type of vaccine, there is a risk of it infecting the person because their cells may not be strong enough to fight the antigens successfully. It’s up to those who can handle vaccines to protect them through herd immunity.