The World Health Organisation has declared this week (24-30 April) World Immunisation Week.
Development of vaccines has been one of the most signifiant medical advances in history and has led to the virtual eradication of many of the world’s most deadly and contagious diseases. Smallpox is now gone from the world and polio that used to infect over a third of million people per year in the 1980s has now been reduced by 99% worldwide thanks to introducing the first effective vaccine for this disease in 1955.
Despite overwhelming documented evidence of the success of immunisation, there is an anti-vaccination movement that has done innumerable harm by spreading irrational untruths that vaccines are ineffective and harmful. The consequences have been in the news over the past year or so, reporting the return of diseases such as mumps and measles. Parents have become confused and conflicted about vaccination since ever since the now discredited Andrew Wakefield’s claimed association between autism and he MMR vaccine. He was disclosed as a fraud but there are still those that hang on to his bogus claims.
The vast majority of medical doctors and scientists recognise the contribution vaccines have made to our health. The anti-vaccination brigade on the other hand is largely made from those with no credentials, or any particular knowledge of science. Their influence is surprising because, to me, it’s like trusting your car to someone who believes it’s powered by a hamster in a wheel instead of a qualified mechanic.
Such anti-vaccination campaigns are reprehensible but at the same time, perhaps, vaccines have become a victim of their own success. In the developed and western world, diseases such as polio, rubella, chicken pox and mumps are largely confined to history. Without direct experience of the ravages of these diseases, then a healthy population starts to forget what it was once like. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi – “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘till it’s gone.”
People who get sick will seek medical help but vaccines are prophylactic, they prevent the disease from occurring in the first place and so it’s easy for a population to lose its collective memory of what it was once like. All they see are the publicised false risks of vaccines and not the hugely greater risks of the diseases themselves. I am of an age to remember friends wearing leg irons because of polio – something now thankfully in the past.