21 February 2017
Routine Vaccinations have saved the lives of over 732,000 children in the USA alone in the last 20 years.With the help of vaccines, the life-threatening disease Smallpox has been eradicated. Other diseases such as Polio and in the UK, Meningococcal meningitis type C, have almost been eradicated. In the USA, bacterial meningitis cases caused by Haemophilus influenza B have dropped by 99% since the introduction of the vaccination against the disease in 1988, according to the CDC. So it is reasonable to claim that vaccines have been one of the greatest innovations in Public Health since clean water. Yet despite their evident successes, there is some hesitancy towards this life-saving innovation in some quarters.
Vaccines have been around since the early 19th century. In more recent history, controversy has sparked surrounding the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccinations. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, an English doctor, published a paper in The Lancet, which suggested an association between the MMR vaccine and autism. This paper has since been withdrawn, following findings that disproved the link. Wakefield was struck off from the medical profession in the UK, after it was found that he had falsely manipulated medical research and had not obtained ethical approval for the invasive tests he carried out on children. This did not stop Wakefield from continuing to support arguments about vaccine hesitancy, and his work gained some publicity, provoking a decline in MMR uptake for a while in some areas, and a causal increase in measles cases.
After moving to the USA Wakefield has become a figure-head for vaccination hesitancy and in 2016 he brought his discredited theory to the screen. “Vaxxed: From Cover up to Catastrophe” is the name of a film directed by Wakefield released last year. So unacceptable was the film, however, that it was pulled last-minute from the Tribeca Film festival. The film hit the news recently as it was due to be shown at the European Parliament on 9th February 2017, an event titled “Vaccines: Their Safety in Question” led by Madame Rivasi, MEP. Many people raised their voices against this event, and there was a Europe-wide outcry against the implied support of the European Parliament. CoMO was among patient advocacy organisations that penned letters calling for the event to be cancelled. The event was successfully withdrawn from the Parliament, but went ahead privately in Espace Lumen, attended by some 40 people.
Last week, we heard the news that the film has similarly been privately screened in London, after being pulled from a public Soho cinema. This screening was held at the private Regent’s University London, where prior to the showing there was a Q&A session with Wakefield. Due to the publicity around the film, supporting activists present at the London screening have now called for Vaxxed to be brought to Ireland as well.
Wakefield isn’t the only figure fostering vaccine hesitancy. There have been discussions about vaccine concerns since the inauguration of the new President in the USA, Donald Trump. Wakefield is rumoured to have been in attendance at Trump’s inauguration ball, and there has been talk of a new ‘Vaccine Safety’ commission. In the past, Mr Trump has expressed concern at the increasing rates of autism and indicated that he believes there is a link between this and vaccinations, ignoring the exhaustive scientific evidence which proves beyond doubt that there is no such association.
The furore surrounding the MMR vaccine in the UK over time has driven immunisation coverage levels in some areas below the level required for herd immunity, and measles cases started to rise again. In fact, the WHO has reported outbreaks and rising incidence of measles throughout Europe in the past few years, with over 30,000 cases reported in 2010.
As a representative of patient advocacy groups around the world, we are deeply troubled by these recent events. We have witnessed the dreadful and rapid impact of meningitis and septicaemia on individuals of all ages, and the devastation they cause to entire families. Anyone directly affected by these diseases has no doubt that immunisation is the best course of action to protect against future cases. We will continue to work alongside other patient advocates to ensure the public have the facts and that access to safe and effective vaccination, which is a right for all, is as widespread as possible.
 CDC. Haemophilus b conjugate vaccines for prevention of Haemophilus influenzae type b disease among infants and children two months of age and older: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR 1991;40(No. RR-1):1-7.
Lucy is the Events and Communications Officer at CoMO. She is a graduate from the University of Liverpool, where she studied French and Hispanic Studies. Lucy has experience working for a range of organisations in the charity sector both in the UK and overseas.