another false alarm

vaccination and sensationalism

Why the confusion? Even in the information era, with massive advancements in public health, there is still lingering public speculation about whether vaccines in young children might lead to autism. The measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR), which protects against three of the most fatal diseases for children, is still met with rumor and rejection by wary parents. For years, my only information on the subject came from scattered news headlines, bold tweets by prominent spokespeople, and the smug ridicule of anti-vaxxers by big media outlets, the kinds that specialize in supersizing tweets to fit entire screens. Looking back, I’m ashamed to have been part of the problem. I took no action to support vaccines, assuming the controversy was just another “tinfoil hat” theory that would quickly be silenced. In reality, it was a delicate topic with serious implications. Vaccines hold a key to the well-being of young children—a sacred, unconditional responsibility. In defaming vaccines, one of the most effective protections against child mortality, anti-vaccination efforts have disgraced science. Through investigating this history of vaccine delegitimization, I learned more about this very real and very harmful cultural trend.

In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield and several of his colleagues published a study in The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals. They investigated 12 children with autism, eight of whom had developed gastrointestinal problems one month after receiving their MMR vaccines. Wakefield hypothesized that the vaccine had led to inflammation in the intestine, causing a “leaky gut.” According to his theory, peptides that are usually contained in the intestine leak into the bloodstream and flow to the brain. Wakefield urged hesitation in administering the vaccine, stating that it was a “moral issue.” A frenzy arose among the media and parents of young children, and medical councils immediately convened out of fear that the greatest medical bombshell of the decade had been uncovered. Vaccination rates began declining, shrinking from almost 100 percent of U.K. toddlers in the mid-1990s to only 70 percent five years after the Wakefield paper. Measles cases grew from just 56 in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008. In 2006, for the first time in over a decade, a child died from measles.

But the Wakefield study abounded in flaws and severely lacked scientific discipline. In the United Kingdom, around 50,000 children per month received the MMR vaccine, and Wakefield drew his hypothesis from just eight, which he eventually expanded to a still-meager 39. Furthermore, there was no control group selected for the study, which meant that no variables were isolated and the results couldn’t be compared with children that didn’t have autism. No peptides were ever detected entering the bloodstream near the brain, and even if there had been, the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine does not have intestinal inflammation as a side effect. Perhaps the ultimate fault of the study is that MMR vaccines are administered when a child is a toddler, and in the majority of cases, autism is also detected in a child’s toddler years. Thus, this makes one easy prey to the classic logical fallacy: correlation without causation.

As a result of these flaws, Wakefield’s results mobilized numerous corrective studies. The British Medical Journal published a series of articles exposing the Wakefield studies as a fraud, revealing how Wakefield and his colleagues cherry-picked facts from the data, at times even outright falsifying them. In 2002, a seven-year study by Kreeston M. and colleagues on 537,303 children who received the MMR vaccine detected no correlation to autism. Furthermore, a later study between Taylor L. and Swerdfeger A. compiled the results of 10 previous studies of over 1.25 million total children in an attempt to detect a link between the vaccine and autism—to no avail. Wakefield’s study was eventually retracted from The Lancet and will likely go down as one of the biggest medical frauds in history.

But despite being squashed in the medical community, Wakefield’s hypothesis has not been rejected by society and still echoes in the ears of countless families today. When it comes to a parent’s will to safeguard their child, the slightest paranoia can move mountains in their decision-making. This is worsened by both our president’s tweets about his suspicions of vaccines as well as media outlets’ propagation and subsequent immortalization of such tweets on televisions nationwide. In today’s information age, nothing can die.

It is tremendously problematic how disease can be politicized and used as fodder for sensationalism. It was not too long ago that the Ebola outbreak was on the front page of every news column. Yet within weeks, the media outlets seemed to lose their appetite and move on. The large spike in coverage of the disease heightened public concern that the United States had been infected, and it even fueled resentment against U.S. citizens on the frontlines helping to contain the disease for fear that they would bring it back. For weeks, headlines focused on the first two infected American volunteers, who were both eventually cured by an experimental serum. But the possibility of distributing this potential cure in the quarantine region was barely further mentioned. Today, as another Ebola outbreak begins in the Congo, it seems as if the media has lost all interest in the topic.

As of August this year, a measles outbreak in the United States has reached 107 individuals, the majority of whom did not have vaccinations. The disease erupts with a fever and spreads into a rash that reaches the hands and feet. But the real danger of measles lies in what else it can lead to. With no effective antiviral treatment available, those infected must wait it out against complications such as pneumonia or brain-swelling. If a young child is infected, they are at a real risk of the disease reaching their brain, which is true of mumps and rubella as well. These are observations rooted in years of medical study with data supplied by too many tragic cases of infants who were not as lucky as children today. From 2000 to 2016, the MMR vaccine prevented an estimated 20.4 million measles cases from occuring. For Wakefield’s fraudulent anti-vaxx stance to sustain such meteoric impact, it truly speaks to how far we’ve strayed towards speculation and how much we love to stir the pot.

Nevertheless, I can understand the lingering appeal of Wakefield’s study in today’s world. For example, I’m willing to bet that I have also fallen for the tricks of smart alecks, postulating sensational claims from limited information more times than I can count. In today’s society, we have an inexplicable fascination with connecting dots and fashioning new ones—out of thin air if we have to. We love novelty and conspiracies, milking them for all they’re worth. At times we are capable of pushing this phenomenon to nauseating heights, as the health of toddlers simply become chips on the table. The Wakefields and sensationalists of the world have no right to generate such claims, and yet so many people still consume, believe, and propagate them.

In today’s information age, people float the word “truth” everywhere, to the point where it has lost meaning. Any flawed argument can be substantiated with false or misleading data; thus, it only takes stubbornness to win one. We have lost what it means to have grace, and forgotten that the ability to admit and concede is its own virtue; it is now the screamers and dogged-minded that rule the spotlight, and as a result we are a country of escalation rather than compromise. In an era with such an extraordinary volume of conflicting information, high standards of accuracy and integrity are more necessary than ever. In order for science to remain a bastion of objectivity and dignity, flawed works like the Wakefield study should not even be considered by reputable journals. In addition, readers should be wary of dramatic headlines or exaggerated claims that lack supporting data, no matter where they are published. Journal publications and the media have enormous reach, and if used correctly, can do tremendous good. One of journalism’s most noble qualities is its ability to speak truth to power, its ability to hold people accountable to their words and monitor those who might abuse their influence. It is a frightening thing, then, to imagine who will check the journalists if their standards decline. Today, when the effects of sensationalism can impact the livelihood of children, the responsibility falls on each of us to keep a level head.