The twenty-teens have been a tumultuous year in the realm of medicine and health. We saw an unsettling number of outbreaks and, ironically, the anti-vaccination movement at the same time.
Three prominent, ongoing and devastating outbreaks that appeared throughout the decade listed in no particular order are:
Malaria: The mosquito-borne disease caused by the plasmodium parasite continues to pose a threat globally. Though the disease has been around for a number of years, there’s still no scientifically proven vaccine for it. As a matter of fact, in many parts of the world the plasmodium parasite has evolved to be heavily drug resistant. In 2010, over 200 million of the world’s population was infected by the disease and over 600,000 of those infected died. The disease is widespread in tropical regions and approximately 90 per cent of cases occur in Africa.
Ebola: This severe and often fatal illness is caused by the Ebola virus and has a death rate of up to 90 per cent. Though it has been around since 1976, the virus caught the public eye in 2014 when its most widespread outbreak occurred across West Africa. This outbreak sparked the mass movement of the world to offer medical support and has led to the development of an experimental vaccine in Canada. The vaccine underwent trial Guinea in 2015 with great success. Despite this, many in Congo currently do not even believe the disease is real.
Diphtheria: This life-threatening infection is caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which produces a toxin in the body that can cause blocked airways, paralysis, heart damage and death due to a build-up of dead membranal tissue. Most in North America are not even aware of the infection because an effective vaccine has existed for years. This however, has not stopped it from appearing in Bangladesh in 2017, primarily within refugee populations.
In a nutshell, anti-vaccination (also called anti-vax) is a stance individuals take, refusing to become vaccinated and have their children vaccinated. Individuals choose to not get vaccinated for a number of reasons, but they are primarily politically, morally or legally motivated. This refusal to be vaccinated goes against the scientifically proven consensus that vaccines are both effective and safe. While the movement has been at the forefront of the media recently, it has existed for over 200 years and is even older than the term vaccine.
Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the anti-vaccination movement one of the biggest threats to public health of the year. For instance, just three years ago there were less than 100,000 cases of measles worldwide. Since then, both the incidence and mortality rates of measles have raised exponentially around the world, even in Canada. While many children have the capacity to survive measles easily on their own, others cannot — a problem easily solved by MMR vaccination, which has been available since 1971. Likewise, vaccination has almost eradicated polio and has completely eradicated smallpox.
Two of the biggest issues with the anti-vax movement are rooted in the fact that the decision not to be vaccinated affects more than just the individual making the decision. Children without the capacity to say no must live with their parents’ decisions to not have them protected against diseases like measles and polio that can prove fatal under certain circumstances.
Refusal to be vaccinated increases the risk of disease for the entire population, including those who have been vaccinated. This happens because it reduces herd immunity, which is a form of protection for the vulnerable, such as children and those with compromised immune systems, that arises when the rest of the population is vaccinated and as such immune to illnesses, preventing them from contracting and passing along dangerous ailments. The most prominent example of this is illustrated in the case of the measles vaccine, which is given to children between the ages of nine and 12 months. There is a miniscule window of time between the disappearance of maternal antibodies and the child being vaccinated, which means that natural infection is still technically possible. Herd immunity lessens this vulnerability if all the children are vaccinated who can be.
If, however, too many people try to live with the assumption that there is herd immunity, so vaccination is unnecessary, then the herd immunity is inadvertently lowered. This happens because fewer and fewer people decide to get vaccinated, potentially leaving the most vulnerable within the population at risk.
Clearly, not all outbreaks can be attributed to a lack of vaccination or immunization, but at the very least, these methods have served as scientifically proven ways to help reduce the infectiousness and fatality of many terrible diseases. We witnessed several health scares over the past decade and it’s easy to get caught up in the fear and mass hysteria of political issues being the cause, et cetera. But as we quickly approach the turn of a new decade, let’s try to take deep, factual looks at the pros and cons of vaccination and other medical programs that could potentially save our lives.