Thursday, January 28, 2016
Few topics have been more contentious over so many years as that of vaccination. Despite the fact that many studies show vaccines to be one of the most effective public health measures ever introduced, a growing number of people still refuse to get themselves and their children vaccinated.
Vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies, thereby ‘persuading’ the body that it has been infected with a disease when, in fact, it has not. Antibodies then effectively create immunity to a disease for the future.
Two centuries following the development of vaccinations, UNICEF reports that immunisation has saved around 9 million lives worldwide. In addition, almost double that number of lives could be saved if everyone were able to be immunised against preventable diseases. However, in the UK, the take-up of the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination for children was heavily influenced by a Lancet publication in 1998, which suggested a link between it and autism. Now that the research has been discredited, the immunisation rate is back up to around 90%, but the drop in the late 90s has placed 2 million children at risk of contracting these diseases.
Despite the increased take-up, scepticism around the topic remains, and a number of myths about vaccination circulate widely. Some of these are being discussed below:
1. Claims that vaccines have damaging side effects and may even be fatal (causing sudden infant death syndrome): The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that there is no causal link as claimed and points out that the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh any risks.
2. A belief that infectious diseases have fallen to such a degree that vaccination is now unnecessary: Again, the WHO makes it clear that this is simply untrue. Vaccine-preventable diseases such as smallpox and polio have not gone away. What’s more, as international travel continues to increase, so does the potential for disease to spread.
3. The claim that vaccination doesn’t work: People can be vaccinated and still contract the disease. This, in fact, is true. No vaccination programme can be 100% effective. However, immunisation does minimise people’s chances of contracting a disease and, should infection occur, it can minimise its effects in terms both of severity of symptoms and duration of illness.
4. Immunisation is a private matter: it’s up to me if I want to be/my child to be inoculated. Unfortunately, this is not true. Where diseases are particularly infectious (with measles for example), the disease becomes a community issue. If you (or your child) remain unvaccinated, then you (or your child) are vulnerable to infection by a range of preventable diseases – from measles and mumps to influenza and hepatitis. Measles and influenza are highly contagious diseases – you can’t keep them to yourself.
5. Influenza isn’t that serious and there are too many strains for vaccination to be effective: A false belief - worldwide, influenza is extremely serious and kills up to half a million people a year. And while it’s not possible to cover every strain that might appear, vaccination offers immunity to the most prevalent ones. Should someone be unlucky enough to be infected following vaccination, symptoms are likely to be less severe – good news for babies, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions. Influenza is a viral infection with a high level of transmissibility – yet we appear to be taking it less seriously than before with immunisation rates falling. Besides, influenza can be a serious health problem that places a strain on the NHS and on the economy generally through lost days at work.
Vaccination has been in the news again recently, with Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to immunise his daughter, and leading scientists have taken the opportunity to publicise immunisation’s benefits. However, the British Medical Association has decided recently that, despite its benefits and the need to promote vaccination widely, it would not make childhood immunisation compulsory in the UK. Its chairman, Dr Ian Bogle, is quoted as saying "The BMA does not think this would be right for the United Kingdom, where the doctor-patient relationship is based on trust, choice and openness.”
All in all, the choice is still there and it's still up to each individual. It can be hard to make a decision about immunisation, especially on behalf of a child; and the fact that it is both a private and a public decision makes it particularly difficult. It seems, however, that illnesses that once were such a threat for the vulnerable in society can be prevented, and perhaps in the long-term, eradicated, by successful vaccination programmes, making the world a safer place to live.