20 years ago, the infamous paper published by Andrew Wakefield, suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, ripped through the global community and caused people to withdraw from vaccinations. This has had devastating effects, with children now being at higher risk of fatal diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus and polio. However, vaccines are one of the key medical breakthroughs which reshaped the way doctors combat disease today, with 116.2 million infants receiving three doses of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine. So, what is the science behind vaccination, will herd immunity protect those part of the ‘Anti-vaccination movement’ and how much has Wakefield’s paper reversed the progress of eradicating some of the world’s deadliest diseases?
The science behind vaccination involves injecting a usually inactive form of the virus that is the causative agent of the disease that the patient is being immunised against. This causes the body to have an immune response to the inactive virus, which allows antibodies to be produced.
Antibodies are small proteins that are responsible for recognising and binding to the virus, allowing for its destruction. The immune response also produces memory cells, and therefore the purpose of the vaccination is to allow for the initial production of memory cells and antibodies, so that if an active form of the virus does infect the patient, they will be able to recognise it and destroy it before the patient becomes ill.
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a scientific paper in the Lancet, which concluded from his research studying 12 children that there was an association between the MMR vaccination and the development of autism. This resulted in a plummet in the number of children being vaccinated, with MMR vaccination rates in the UK collapsing from above 90 per cent to 79 per cent in January 2003.
However, the paper became hugely discredited under review from a variety of scientific experts, with observations that many of Wakefield’s findings were completely different to actual results.
For example, Brian Deer reported that while the paper claimed that eight of the study’s 12 children showed either gastrointestinal or autism-like symptoms a few days after vaccination, records instead show that at most two children experienced these symptoms in this time frame.
Additionally, while the paper claimed that all 12 of the children were “previously normal” before vaccination with MMR, at least two had developmental delays that were noted in their records before the vaccination took place.
After examining the records for all 12 children, Deer noted that the statements made in the paper did not match numbers from the records in any category: the children having regressive autism; non-specific colitis; or first symptoms within days after receiving the MMR vaccine. The Lancet paper claimed that six of the children had all three of these conditions; according to the records, not a single child actually did.
Despite the paper being removed from the Lancet journal and Wakefield having his license revoked, the damage of the rapidly reduced number of children having the MMR vaccine was already done, and its effects are still visible today.
Reports from as recently as September show that, for the fourth year in a row, MMR vaccination is still falling, and this will undoubtedly lead to an increased risk of the development of previously almost eradicated diseases.
For example, in 2006, a 13-year-old boy from Manchester became the first UK death from measles for 14 years, and that year in England and Wales there were more than 450 measles cases, the highest level for 20 years.
Even more recently, in this year alone, there have been 876 measles cases confirmed, more than three times the number for the whole of 2017. Figures have also shown that only 87.2% of five-year-olds have received both MMR vaccines this year, well below the 95% recommended by the World Health Organisation.
This has become increasingly concerning, with scientists urging people not to rely on herd immunity, which is only effective in protecting those not immunised against the disease when over 95% of the population are immunised.
Therefore, the effects of Wakefield’s paper, which essentially discourages people to get the MMR vaccination, could still cause the recurrence of potentially lethal diseases even though it has been discredited.
Seeing as this paper caused nearly irreversible damage to people’s attitudes towards vaccinations, which could welcome back deadly disease, this should really be a lesson to all of us to be critical of everything we hear and read, and not blindly believe everything written in science.
Last modified: 4th December 2018