When did childhood immunizations become so controversial?
June 20, 2013 7:15 AM   Subscribe

When did childhood immunizations become so controversial? I don't recall their being any issues with immunization because the science clearly shows it is helpful to mankind. So I wonder what the issue is. I thought of this while reading a news story about it just now.
posted by usermac to Law & Government (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would say the false claim about vaccines causing autism sparked the main anti-vax movement.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:23 AM on June 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I believe that it really did start to gain prominence with Andrew Wakefield and colleagues. There may have been pockets of concern about vaccinations before that, but the initial publication of a (now known to be falsified) connection between the MMR vaccine and autism in Lancet brought it to national consciousness.
posted by muddgirl at 7:25 AM on June 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is all covered in the MMR Vaccine Controversy. See Disease Outbreaks and Impact on society specifically.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:26 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some asshole wrote a paper in which he falsified data to support his claim that vaccines cause autism. He did this because he wanted to invent a new disease called autistic entercolitis. He would then sell kits to detect and treat this made-up disease and get rich off the fears of parents. He's since been discredited but other assholes like Jenny McCarthy have since taken up his flag and are getting rich(er) off this same falsified data and the baseless fears it has generated in parents.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:27 AM on June 20, 2013 [22 favorites]

Well, long before Andrew F-in Wakefield erroneously linked autism to the MMR vaccine, my ex was anti-vax as he claimed mandatory vaccinations were the first step to preparing the population to receive their government mind-control implants. So there was that.
posted by goo at 7:27 AM on June 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

I was reading up on the unreported side effects of vaccinations in the early '90s. No mention then of a link with autism.
posted by Specklet at 7:28 AM on June 20, 2013

Yeah, the current anti-vax movement was "born" with the Wakefield crimes, but there's always been an anti-vax thread amongst the John Birch-level superconservatives who were also against fluoridating water and things like that. So basically, for as long as there's been vaccination, some (small) percentage of people haven't believed in it and have been willing to seize on any purported evidence of its harm.
posted by Etrigan at 7:43 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Andrew Wakefield business can be blamed for Western anti-vax controversy, but there's a lot of unrelated controversy in non-Western countries, which is generally blamed on the CIA.
posted by emilyw at 7:54 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a very useful cartoon: The Facts In The Case Of Dr. Andrew Wakefield

I think it is also something where the internet is partially to blame for giving some sort of validation to what were previously isolated kooks, and for making it easy to disseminate bad information. If you wanted to know more about vaccines twenty years ago you had to go to a library and look at actual research; now, it's not very difficult to register, say, greatmothersquestioningvaccines.com.

Wikipedia also has a general Vaccine controversies entry.
posted by kmennie at 7:56 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, the article you linked refers to the vaccination rate in Mullumbimby being 50% - Mullum is a hippy town where people are very likely to be anti-allopathic medicine and anti-government, so those are big contributing factors to that particular statistic.
posted by goo at 7:56 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Even before Wakefield, there have been groups with strong religious beliefs that opposed vaccinations. For example, the Dutch Bible Belt (!) had a raging outbreak of Polio in the late 1970s due to non-vaxing.
posted by Leezie at 7:57 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Vaccines have always been at least a little controversial - I think it's partly because it's a very communal thing, getting vaccines; there's benefit to the individual who gets vaccinated, but the main benefit for most vaccines is at the population level (in the form of herd immunity). All vaccines have some level of risk associated with them (though it's EXTREMELY small with modern vaccines), and even when they're working correctly some vaccines can make you feel sick (I'm looking at you, Tdap). So you're taking on a small risk/inconvenience/discomfort for a small benefit to yourself and a large benefit to society (if enough people cooperate - there's also a game-theory aspect here, where "cheaters" who avoid vaccines can benefit from the herd immunity provided by "cooperators" who do get vaccinated).

But I agree that the modern Western anti-vax movement largely originates with Andrew Wakefield and incubates in echo-chamber communities on the internet.
posted by mskyle at 8:05 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it also ties in with a growing awareness of the potential harms that may come from our increasing reliance on factory-farmed and/or factory-produced foods. If you're worried about the pesticides, the additives, the food coloring, the junk food, the sugars, etc. that your growing child is consuming it's just a short step to worrying about the various vaccines they're supposed to get.

Note: I'm all for vaccines, and I'm glad my children chose to have my grandchildren vaccinated.
posted by mareli at 8:06 AM on June 20, 2013

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin is a good outline of the history of vaccine controversies, starting even before Wakefield.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:06 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Many vaccines have been controversial from the beginning. Early 20th century vaccines were directed to groups thought to be prime carriers of disease -- like the poor and prostitutes -- and they were literally rounded up and forced to be injected. That sort of thing has contributed to a sense of "powerful people getting something over on the masses" that re-emerges periodically. I read a great article on this for a paper I wrote -- if you're interested I'll dig up the citation.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:06 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about the pesticides, the additives, the food coloring, the junk food, the sugars, etc. that your growing child is consuming it's just a short step to worrying about the various vaccines they're supposed to get.

Wakefield was certainly responding within a community that was primed to believe that modern life was exacerbating their children's illness, especially with autism which can seem to spring out of nowhere and affect a seemingly-healthy child. His early work was done with a then-small group called Allergy Induced Autism.
posted by muddgirl at 8:14 AM on June 20, 2013

I think they began to become controversial with the access of information via the internet and the heavily increasing vaccination schedule which saw many parents seek answers in regards to the more frequent reactions they were seeing in their own children. (Presently, by the time a child turns 6 they will have received about 40 vaccines. By comparison, my childhood chart lists 8 from the 1980's.)

How Effective?
How Safe?

People are also becoming less trusting on the medical system and are starting to read up on the things they put in their bodies. It doesn't sit well that there isn't a single long-term study that concludes vaccination safety.

As for the link with Autism, I believe that belief came about because mercury toxicity -the thimerosol- that was put into the vaccines to preserve them before it was discovered harmful and the amount reduced, carries the same symptoms as Autism and children under 2 aren't able to process heavy metals out of the body effectively. That's why you hear of stories (ie Jenny McCarthy) of children who had previously been developmentally normal receiving an ASD diagnosis after receiving their vaccinations, then 'healing' from Autism later on in life.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 8:16 AM on June 20, 2013

Mod note: Folks, answer the question and DO NOT turn this thread into an argument about your perspectives on this. Period. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:17 AM on June 20, 2013

I've also noticed that many parents have become more uncomfortable with vaccines as the number of required vaccines for children has increased (see this link for one skeptic's comparison). As effective vaccines have been developed, and the safety profiles tested, the CDC has begun to recommend them for children - for example, the hepatitis A vaccine and the chickenpox vaccine are both recent additions to the list.

There is some reason for this skepticism. After all, the CDC makes recommendations based on population protection, not individual protection. A certain number of people will be harmed by vaccines with known side effects like Guillain-Barre syndrome. However, a certain number of children were experiencing severe illness or death due to illnesses like hepatitis A and chickenpox, so on balance, the recommendations produce a net positive effect, and following the recommendations is therefore more likely to result in a positive effect for the person getting vaccinated - but there is no guaranteed safe path, and this is a case where individual choices affect a community and not just an individual, which muddies the ethical waters (even a fellow healthcare worker said to me "why should I get a flu vaccine when it might not even work?!" - answer: mainly, to protect others from getting the flu from you).

There is at least one good argument that can be used to counter those who are worried that we are giving our children "too many vaccines these days" and think that surely, although they aren't sure exactly what the bad outcomes might be, this must be dangerous. For those familiar with the science behind vaccines, each vaccine contains molecules called antigens that present the challenge to the immune system that should result in immunity to the disease. Back when I was a baby, the number of antigens I was exposed to through vaccines was about 3,041. Nowadays, my daughter will probably be exposed to about 153 due to improvements in vaccine technology (mainly, the change from whole cell pertussis vaccine to acellular pertussis vaccine). I add this information not to foment debate on the subject of vaccines (as a physician, I think it is pretty clear where I would stand) but because I think it is germane background information for my answer.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:32 AM on June 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Wakefield's fraud is what middle class Internet people are most familiar with. But there's other reasons for resistance, particularly in Muslim developing nations. In Nigeria, for instance, there's resistance to polio vaccination because of fears the vaccine is harmful (with some reason.) The idea that "vaccines sterilize our people" has spread in Pakistan, too. The fact that the CIA ran a fake vaccination program to help find Bin Laden in Pakistan doesn't help.

People sometimes are suspicious of medicine, particularly when it comes from an outsider. There's a whole body of anthropological literature on why communities resist vaccination. It's a topic of some importance; medicine's no good if people refuse to take it.
posted by Nelson at 9:34 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just a cool site on the history of vaccines:
posted by PJMoore at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2013

For some time very conservative Catholics have been opposed to the rubella vaccine (and a few others) since they are made from cell lines derived from an elective abortion.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:50 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

In 1980, anti-vaccination was popular in the home-birth, home-school, Mothering magazine reader crowd.

And then in 1987 Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn wrote the book How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor which had a chapter questioning immunizations.
posted by cda at 9:51 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

And I think that Dr. Sears (big in attachment parenting) recommends an alternative schedule of immunizations, which just adds grist to the impression that the usual recomendations are somehow suspect.
posted by acm at 1:28 PM on June 20, 2013

As mentioned the Wakefield affair was big in vaccine controversies becoming prominent in the media.

There were a lot of groups looking for a reason for vaccines to become an issue. Religious objections and a hatred of anything government mandated in some other corners were the kindling. The now soundly disproved Wakefield claims were the match.

Wakefield's claims seemed consistent with some parent's experience. The age where people often first become aware of autism symptoms corresponds with the age where certain vaccinations are often given.
posted by logonym at 2:03 PM on June 20, 2013

Here is the Wikipedia article "Vaccine Controversies".

And here is History of Anti-vaccination Movements by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
posted by cda at 3:08 PM on June 20, 2013

Literally the night before my son was due for his first vaccinations (he's twenty-eight now) there was a show on 20/20 or Primetime or some such show about some sort of problem with vaccines (it wasn't autism-it was more like a child got vaccinated and died the day after or some such thing.) He was born in late 1984 so this would have been early 1985. And then, boy howdy, off to the races the topic went.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:07 PM on June 20, 2013

I would like to comment on the emotional side of vaccinations. Personally I suspect that being anti-vaccine is an emotional response to the big increases in the safety of childhood that have occurred in the last hundred years, and things like the Wakefield fraud are ways to rationalize the emotional response.

I'm a new parent, a scientist, and I know the importance of vaccination. I was pretty unsympathetic to the anti-vaccine kooks. But now that I've vaccinated my baby I can tell you that it's upsetting. If you're wealthy and American and have a healthy baby, it's easy to see only the negative effects of vaccination. The baby cries during the shots, and might have a sore leg for a couple days, and might have a fever and be fussy. The baby is sick because of the vaccine. I can see how people could think that there's no point in causing visible harm to a baby to prevent some disease that basically doesn't exist in our society. While this reasoning is wrong, I do have empathy for the reasons behind it. I knew that I was hurting my baby with each injection, even though I knew it was for a good reason.
posted by medusa at 9:58 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

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