Tensions ran high in Kerala, India in October 2017, as WhatsApp forwards discouraging parents from vaccinating their children did the rounds. The forwards quoted a Doctor interviewed in a regional newspaper declaring that mandatory vaccines such as the Measles-Rubella vaccine are unnecessary, as the fevers only last a few days and children can bounce back soon with lifelong immunity.
This wasn’t the first-time anti-vaccination messages were circulated via social media to influence parents. In Brazil, the Ministry of Health found anti-vax Facebook groups had drawn over 13,000 followers in 2017. In 2018, Brazil is suffering one of its worst outbreaks of yellow fever, a potentially lethal mosquito-borne virus. The outbreak follows an epidemic of the deadly Zika virus, that resulted in severe birth defects in hundreds of babies across the nation.
In Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital, schools began to request parental approval or interest as a criterion to administer mandatory vaccinations. This went against the state government’s plan to vaccinate 76 lakh (7.6 million) children between the ages of 9 and 15 as part of India’s National Immunization Programme. A district medical officer has filed complaints to intervene and rectify the schools’ stance.
Anti-vaccination messages are not relegated to the world of WhatsApp forwards and Facebook groups alone. They have also been endorsed by U.S. President Donald Trump. His tweets in 2014 linking vaccination and autism - without evidence - have been quoted ad nauseam in articles championing the cause by ‘anti-vaxxers.’
In the United States, The Vaccination Act of 1853 required mandatory vaccination for infants up to 3 months old, while the Act of 1867 extended the age requirement to 14 years, with added penalties for anyone refusing to vaccinate. So why are parents world over today increasingly vocal about being against vaccines for children, often while ignoring their legal obligations?
Many sources point to a 1998 medical report in a journal called The Lancet. The study, authored by ten scientists, including the now discredited Andrew J. Wakefield, suggested a link between vaccination and autism rather than proving it. Although ten of the original 13 authors retracted the interpretation in 2004, vaccination rates in countries like United Kingdom began to drop and the trend continues till date.
Certain groups in the United States, latching onto the tweets by Donald Trump, also appear to be fighting for their right to refuse vaccination citing religious and health reasons. Similar views prevail in India. Government efforts to vaccinate were scuttled when people from a rural community cited their faith as a reason for restricting their children from availing the polio vaccine.
Thejusvi Ganesh, father to a one year old, a medical doctor and Principal Systems Administrator at a California based Life Sciences laboratory says, “Of the few cases I’ve looked into, the causes of death or serious reactions to vaccines were mostly due to an allergic reaction to egg proteins or the stabilizers/buffers used. Of those 'infected' by their vaccinations - their immune systems were either compromised or they already suffered from major systemic illnesses (uncontrolled diabetes etc.). The vaccines may not help them, but they bring to light an underlying issue.”
“For those who had allergic reactions to the vaccine or its parts, yes, their death could have been prevented by not vaccinating; but statistically, the odds of having an anaphylactic type response to a single vaccine dose without any precursor symptoms is almost nil. Of course, there are also the people who think vaccinations are for the governments to implant tracking or mind control devices. I’m afraid there isn't anything anyone can do to fix those tinfoil hat theories.” he quips.
Haran Singh, a Chennai-based entrepreneur and parent of a toddler says that vaccination today is easier than ever before. “Talk to your doctors. They are usually willing to answer questions and address concerns. Doctors also help you plan what shots will happen when and reduce the stress you go through about seeing your child receive injections, while alerting you about any side effects.”
Across the globe, diseases that had almost been eradicated are beginning to resurface. In 2018, the United Kingdom saw over 440 confirmed cases of measles. The statistic is up by 65% compared to 2017, where the number of confirmed cases was 267. In December 2014, 52 people caught measles after visiting Disneyland in California, and in 2017, Minnesota saw its biggest measles outbreak in 27 years. The timing of these outbreaks is ironic, as countries like Italy and France have passed mandatory vaccination laws, making parents legally obligated to vaccinate their children.
Dr. Ganesh adds, “As long as the greater populace is getting vaccinated, everyone is benefiting from herd immunity. If the majority is vaccinated against a pathogen, then that pathogen is unable to replicate and infect new hosts. It is only when we have completely eradicated a pathogen that we can stop immunizations against that pathogen, like in the case of smallpox.” He adds that his son had almost no issues with his vaccination, apart from a low-grade fever and rash.
“If your child is in a nursery or daycare, it is impossible to keep them from sharing germs with the other children. Daycare, schools, parks and playgrounds are a cesspool for germs to breed in, and quickly disseminate.”
Prior to the invention of the vaccine in 1960, between 15,000 and 60,000 people went blind because of the measles each year. Can we risk another blindness epidemic when we have a cure? Being aware of both sides of the story is great but doing the right thing for your child and the immunity of your community is essential.