Vaccine controversy

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A vaccine controversy is a dispute over the morality, ethics, effectiveness, or safety of vaccination. Medical opinion is that the benefits of preventing suffering and death from infectious diseases outweigh rare adverse effects of immunization.[1][2] Since vaccination began in the late 18th century, opponents have argued that vaccines do not work, that they are or may be dangerous, that individuals should rely on personal hygiene instead, or that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights or religious principles.[3]

Concerns about immunization safety often follow a pattern: some investigators suggest that a medical condition is an adverse effect of vaccination; a premature announcement is made of the alleged adverse effect; the initial study is not reproduced by other groups; and finally, it takes several years to regain public confidence in the vaccine.[1]



[edit] Effectiveness

Rubella fell sharply when universal immunization was introduced. CDC

Mass vaccination helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed as many as every seventh child in Europe.[4] Vaccination almost eradicated polio.[5] As a more modest example, incidence of invasive disease with Haemophilus influenzae, a major cause of bacterial meningitis and other serious disease in children, has decreased by over 99% in the U.S. since the introduction of a vaccine in 1988.[6] Fully vaccinating all U.S. children born in a given year from birth to adolescence saves an estimated 33,000 lives and prevents an estimated 14 million infections.[7]

Some vaccine critics claim that there have never been any benefits to public health from vaccination.[8][9] They argue that all the reduction of communicable diseases which were rampant in conditions where overcrowding, poor sanitation, almost non-existent hygiene and a yearly period of very restricted diet existed, are reduced because of changes in conditions excepting vaccination.[9] Other critics argue that immunity given by vaccines is only temporary and requires boosters, whereas those who survive the disease become permanently immune.[3] As discussed below, the philosophies of some alternative medicine practitioners are incompatible with the idea that vaccines are effective.[10]

Children who survive diseases such as diphtheria develop a natural immunity that lasts longer than immunity developed via vaccination. Even though the overall mortality rate is much lower with vaccination, the percentage of adults protected against the disease may also be lower.[11] Vaccination critics argue that for diseases like diphtheria the extra risk to older or weaker adults may outweigh the benefit of lowering the mortality rate among the general population.[12]


Population health

Lack of complete vaccine coverage increases the risk of disease for the entire population, including those who have been vaccinated. One study found that doubling the number of unvaccinated individuals would increase the risk of measles in vaccinated children anywhere from 5–30%.[13] A second study provided evidence that the risk of measles and pertussis increased in vaccinated children proportionally to the number of unvaccinated individuals among them, again highlighting the evident efficacy of widespread vaccine coverage for public health.[14]


Commonly-used vaccines are a cost-effective and preventive way of promoting health, compared to the treatment of acute or chronic disease. In the U.S. during the year 2001, routine childhood immunizations against seven diseases were estimated to save over $40 billion per birth-year cohort in overall social costs including $10 billion in direct health costs, and the societal benefit-cost ratio for these vaccinations was estimated to be 16.5.[15]


 Events following reductions in vaccination

In several countries, reductions in the use of some vaccines were followed by increases in the diseases’ morbidity and mortality.[16][17] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, continued high levels of vaccine coverage are necessary to prevent resurgence of diseases which have been nearly eliminated.[18]

Stockholm, smallpox (1873–74)

An anti-vaccination campaign motivated by religious objections, by concerns about effectiveness, and by concerns about individual rights, led to the vaccination rate in Stockholm dropping to just over 40%, compared to about 90% elsewhere in Sweden. A major smallpox epidemic then started in 1873. It led to a rise in vaccine uptake and an end of the epidemic.[19]

In a postwar poster the Ministry of Health urged British residents to immunize children against diphtheria.

UK, DPT (1970s–80s)

A 1974 report ascribed 36 reactions to whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine, a prominent public-health academic claimed that the vaccine was only marginally effective and questioned whether its benefits outweigh its risks, and extended television and press coverage caused a scare. Vaccine uptake in the UK decreased from 81% to 31% and pertussis epidemics followed, leading to deaths of some children. Mainstream medical opinion continued to support the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine; public confidence was restored after the publication of a national reassessment of vaccine efficacy. Vaccine uptake then increased to levels above 90% and disease incidence declined dramatically.[16]

Sweden, pertussis (1979–96)

In the vaccination moratorium period that occurred when Sweden suspended vaccination against whooping cough (pertussis) from 1979 to 1996, 60% of the country’s children contracted the potentially fatal disease before the age of ten years; close medical monitoring kept the death rate from whooping cough at about one per year.[17] Pertussis continues to be a major health problem in developing countries, where mass vaccination is not practiced; the World Health Organization estimates it caused 294,000 deaths in 2002.[20]

Netherlands, measles (1999–2000)

An outbreak at a religious community and school in The Netherlands illustrates the effect of measles in an unvaccinated population.[21] The population in the several provinces affected had a high level of immunization with the exception of one of the religious denominations who traditionally do not accept vaccination. The three measles-related deaths and 68 hospitalizations that occurred among 2961 cases in the Netherlands demonstrate that measles can be severe and may result in death even in industrialized countries.

UK and Ireland, measles (2000)

As a result of the MMR vaccine controversy vaccination compliance dropped sharply in the United Kingdom after 1996.[22] From late 1999 until the summer of 2000, there was a measles outbreak in North Dublin, Ireland. At the time, the national immunization level had fallen below 80%, and in part of North Dublin the level was around 60%. There were more than 100 hospital admissions from over 300 cases. Three children died and several more were gravely ill, some requiring mechanical ventilation to recover.[23][24]

Nigeria, polio, measles, diphtheria (2001 onward)

In the early 2000s, conservative religious leaders in northern Nigeria, suspicious of Western medicine, advised their followers to not have their children vaccinated with oral polio vaccine. The boycott was endorsed by the governor of Kano State, and immunization was suspended for several months. Subsequently, polio reappeared in a dozen formerly polio-free neighbors of Nigeria, and genetic tests showed the virus was the same one that originated in northern Nigeria: Nigeria had become a net exporter of polio virus to its African neighbors. People in the northern states were also reported to be wary of other vaccinations, and Nigeria reported over 20,000 measles cases and nearly 600 deaths from measles from January through March 2005.[25] In 2006 Nigeria accounted for over half of all new polio cases worldwide.[26] Outbreaks continued thereafter; for example, at least 200 children died in a late-2007 measles outbreak in Borno State.[27]

Indiana, USA, measles (2005)

A 2005 measles outbreak in the US state of Indiana was attributed to parents who had refused to have their children vaccinated.[28] Most cases of pediatric tetanus in the U.S. occur in children whose parents objected to their vaccination.[29]



Few deny the vast improvements vaccination has made to public health; a more common concern is their safety.[30] All vaccines may cause side effects, and immunization safety is a real concern. Unlike most other medical interventions, vaccines are given to healthy people, and people are far less willing to tolerate vaccines’ adverse effects than adverse effects of other treatments. As the success of immunization programs increases and the incidence of disease decreases, public attention shifts away from the risks of disease to the risk of vaccination.[1]

Concerns about immunization safety often follow a pattern. First, some investigators suggest that a medical condition of increasing prevalance or unknown cause is an adverse effect of vaccination. The initial study, and subsequent studies by the same group, have inadequate methodology, typically a poorly controlled or uncontrolled case series. A premature announcement is made of the alleged adverse effect, resonating with individuals suffering the condition, and underestimating the potential harm to those whom the vaccine could protect. The initial study is not reproduced by other groups. Finally, it takes several years to regain public confidence in the vaccine.[1]

Controversies in this area revolve around the question of whether the risks of perceived adverse events following immunization outweigh the benefits of preventing adverse effects of common diseases. There is scientific evidence that in rare cases immunizations can cause adverse events, such as oral polio vaccine causing paralysis. Current scientific evidence does not support the hypothesis of causation for more-common disorders such as autism.[1] Although the hypotheses that vaccines cause autism are biologically implausible, it would be hard to study scientifically whether autism is less common in children who do not follow recommended vaccination schedules, due to the ethics of basing experiments on withholding vaccines from children, and due to the likely differences in health care seeking behaviors of undervaccinated children.[31]


Vaccine overload

Vaccine overload is the hypothesis that giving many vaccines at once may overwhelm or weaken a child’s immune system, and lead to autism or other adverse effects. Although no scientific evidence supports this hypothesis, it has caused many parents to delay or avoid immunizing their children.[32]

The hypothesis has several flaws.[31] Common childhood conditions such as fevers and middle ear infections pose a much greater challenge to the immune system than vaccines do.[33][34] Because of changes in vaccine formulation, the fourteen vaccines now given to young U.S. children contain less than 10% of the number of immunologic components of the seven vaccines given in 1980.[31]

Numerous studies have tested the hypothesis that “vaccine overload” damages the immune system, generally by studying whether vaccination increases the risk of acquiring other (non-vaccine-preventable) infectious diseases. These studies have repeatedly found that vaccine burden does not compromise overall immunity.[35][36] The lack of evidence supporting the vaccine overload hypothesis, combined with these findings directly contradicting it, have led to the conclusion that currently recommended vaccine programs do not “overload” or weaken the immune system.[37][38]



In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asked vaccine makers to remove the organomercury compound thiomersal from vaccines as quickly as possible, and thiomersal has been phased out of U.S. and European vaccines, except for some preparations of influenza vaccine.[39] The CDC and the AAP followed the precautionary principle, which assumes that there is no harm in exercising caution even if it later turns out to be unwarranted, but their 1999 action sparked confusion and controversy that has diverted attention and resources away from efforts to determine the causes of autism.[39] Since 2000, the thiomersal in child vaccines has been alleged to contribute to autism, and thousands of parents in the United States have pursued legal compensation from a federal fund.[40] A 2004 Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee favored rejecting any causal relationship between thiomersal-containing vaccines and autism.[41] Currently there is no convincing scientific evidence that thiomersal causes or helps cause autism.[42]

 MMR vaccine

In the UK, the MMR vaccine was the subject of controversy after publication of a 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield, et al., reporting a study of 12 children mostly with autism spectrum disorders with onset soon after administration of the vaccine.[43] During a 1998 press conference, Wakefield suggested that giving children the vaccines in three separate doses would be safer than a single vaccination. This suggestion was not supported by the paper, and several subsequent peer-reviewed studies have failed to show any association between the vaccine and autism.[44] Wakefield has been heavily criticized on scientific grounds and for triggering a decline in vaccination rates,[45] as well as on ethical grounds for the way the research was conducted.[46] In 2009 The Sunday Times reported that Wakefield had manipulated patient data and misreported results in his 1998 paper, creating the appearance of a link with autism.[47]

In 2004 the MMR-and-autism interpretation of the paper was formally retracted by 10 of Wakefield’s 12 co-authors.[48] The CDC,[49] the IOM of the National Academy of Sciences,[50] and the UK National Health Service[51] have all concluded that there is no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. A systematic review by the Cochrane Library concluded that there is no credible link between the MMR vaccine and autism, that MMR has prevented diseases that still carry a heavy burden of death and complications, that the lack of confidence in MMR has damaged public health, and that design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies are largely inadequate.[2]

A special court convened in the United States to review claims under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program ruled on 12 February 2009 that parents of autistic children are not entitled to compensation in their contention that certain vaccines caused autism in their children.[52][53]


 Prenatal infection

There is evidence that schizophrenia is associated with prenatal exposure to rubella, influenza, and toxoplasmosis infection. For example, one study found a seven-fold increased risk of schizophrenia when mothers were exposed to influenza in the first trimester of gestation. This may have public health implications, as strategies for preventing infection include vaccination, antibiotics, and simple hygiene.[54] When weighing the benefits of protecting the woman and fetus from influenza against the potential risk of vaccine-induced antibodies that could conceivably contribute to schizophrenia, influenza vaccination for women of reproductive age still makes sense, but it is not known whether vaccination during pregnancy helps or harms.[55] The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend routine flu shots for pregnant women, for several reasons:[56]

  • their risk for serious influenza-related medical complications during the last two trimesters;
  • their greater rates for flu-related hospitalizations compared to nonpregnant women;
  • the possible transfer of maternal anti-influenza antibodies to children, protecting the children from the flu; and
  • several studies that found no harm to pregnant women or their children from the vaccinations.

Despite this recommendation, only 16% of healthy pregnant U.S. women surveyed in 2005 had been vaccinated against the flu.[56]



Aluminum compounds are used as immunologic adjuvants to increase the effectiveness of many vaccines. Although in some cases these compounds have been associated with redness, itching, and low-grade fever,[57] and aluminum as such is considered neurotoxic for humans, its use in vaccines has not been associated with serious adverse events.[58] In some cases aluminum-containing vaccines are associated with macrophagic myofasciitis (MMF), localized microscopic lesions containing aluminum salts that persist up to 8 years. However, recent case-controlled studies have found no specific clinical symptoms in individuals with biopsies showing MMF, and there is no evidence that aluminum-containing vaccines are a serious health risk or justify changes to immunization practice.[58]

 Individual liberty

Compulsory vaccination policies have provoked opposition at various times from people who say that governments should not infringe on the freedom of an individual to choose medications, even if the choice increases the risk of disease to others.[3][59] If a vaccination program successfully reduces the disease threat, it may reduce the perceived risk of disease enough so that an individual’s optimal strategy is to refuse vaccination at coverage levels below those optimal for the community.[60] If many exemptions are granted to mandatory vaccination rules, the resulting free rider problem may cause loss of herd immunity, substantially increasing risks even to vaccinated individuals.[61]


Vaccination has been opposed on religious grounds ever since it was introduced, even when vaccination is not compulsory. Some Christian opponents argued, when vaccination was first becoming widespread, that if God had decreed that someone should die of smallpox, it would be a sin to thwart God’s will via vaccination.[62] Religious opposition continues to the present day, on various grounds, raising ethical difficulties when the number of unvaccinated children threatens harm to the entire population.[61] Many governments allow parents to opt out of their children’s otherwise-mandatory vaccinations for religious reasons; some parents falsely claim religious beliefs to get vaccination exemptions.[63]

Alternative medicine

Many forms of alternative medicine are based on philosophies that oppose vaccination and have practitioners who voice their opposition. These include anthroposophy, some elements of the chiropractic community, non-medically trained homoeopaths, and naturopaths.[10]

Historically, chiropractic strongly opposed vaccination based on its belief that all diseases were traceable to causes in the spine, and therefore could not be affected by vaccines; Daniel D. Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, wrote, “It is the very height of absurdity to strive to ‘protect’ any person from smallpox or any other malady by inoculating them with a filthy animal poison.”[64] Vaccination remains controversial within chiropractic.[65] Although most chiropractic writings on vaccination focus on its negative aspects,[64] antivaccination sentiment is espoused by what appears to be a minority of chiropractors.[65] The American Chiropractic Association and the International Chiropractic Association support individual exemptions to compulsory vaccination laws, and a 1995 survey of U.S. chiropractors found that about a third believed there was no scientific proof that immunization prevents disease.[65] While the Canadian Chiropractic Association supports vaccination,[64] a survey in Alberta in 2002 found that 25% of chiropractors advised patients for, and 27% against, vaccinating themselves or their children.[66]

Although most chiropractic colleges try to teach about vaccination responsibly, several have faculty who seem to stress negative views.[65] A survey of a 1999–2000 cross section of students of Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, which does not formally teach antivaccination views, reported that fourth-year students opposed vaccination more strongly than first-years, with 29.4% of fourth-years opposing vaccination.[67]

Several surveys have shown that some practitioners of homeopathy, particularly homeopaths without any medical training, advise patients against vaccination.[68] For example, a survey of registered homeopaths in Austria found that only 28% considered immunization to be an important preventive measure, and 83% of homeopaths surveyed in Sydney, Australia did not recommend vaccination.[10] Many practitioners of naturopathy also oppose vaccination.[10]

Financial motives

For many vaccines, the financial risks for producers are great and market returns are usually minimal.[69] Critics state that the profit motive explains why vaccination is required, and that vaccine makers cover up or suppress information, or generate misinformation, about safety or effectiveness.[3]

Some vaccine critics allegedly have financial motives for criticizing vaccines.[46] Legal counsel and expert witnesses employed in anti-vaccine cases may be motivated by profit.[70]

Dispute resolution

The U.S. Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) was created to provide a federal no-fault system for compensating vaccine-related injuries or death. It is funded by a 75 cent excise tax on vaccines sold in the country and was established after a scare in the 1980s over the DPT vaccine: even though claims of side effects were later generally discredited, large jury awards had been given to some claimants of DPT vaccine injuries, and most DPT vaccine makers had ceased production. Claims against vaccine manufacturers must be heard first in the vaccine court.[40] By 2008 the fund had paid out 2,114 awards totaling $1.7 billion.[71] Thousands of cases of autism-related claims are pending before the court, and have not yet been resolved.[40] In 2008 the government conceded one case concerning a child who had a pre-existing mitochondrial disorder and whose autism-like symptoms came after five simultaneous injections against nine diseases.[72]


Edward Jenner

Religious arguments against inoculation were advanced even before the work of Edward Jenner; for example, in a 1722 sermon entitled “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation” the English theologian Rev. Edward Massey argued that diseases are sent by God to punish sin and that any attempt to prevent smallpox via inoculation is a “diabolical operation”.[62] Some anti-vaccinationists still base their stance against vaccination with reference to their religious beliefs.[73]

After Jenner’s work, vaccination became widespread in the United Kingdom in the early 1800s.[74] Variolation, which had preceded vaccination, was banned in 1840 because of its greater risks. Public policy and successive Vaccination Acts first encouraged vaccination and then made it mandatory for all infants in 1853, with the highest penalty for refusal being a prison sentence. This was a significant change in the relationship between the British state and its citizens, and there was a public backlash. After an 1867 law extended the requirement to age 14 years, its opponents focused concern on infringement of individual freedom, and eventually a 1898 law allowed for conscientious objection to compulsory vaccination.[3]

In the 19th century, the city of Leicester in the UK achieved a high level of isolation of smallpox cases and great reduction in spread compared to other areas. The mainstay of Leicester’s approach to conquering smallpox was to decline vaccination and put their public funds into sanitary improvements.[75][76] Bigg’s account of the public health procedures in Leicester, presented as evidence to the Royal Commission, refers to erysipelas, an infection of the superficial tissues which was a complication of any surgical procedure.

In the U.S., President Thomas Jefferson took a close interest in vaccination, alongside Dr. Waterhouse, chief physician at Boston. Jefferson encouraged the development of ways to transport vaccine material through the Southern states, which included measures to avoid damage by heat, a leading cause of ineffective batches. Smallpox outbreaks were contained by the latter half of the 19th century, a development widely attributed to vaccination of a large portion of the population.[77] Vaccination rates fell after this decline in smallpox cases, and the disease again became epidemic in the 1870s (see smallpox).

1904 cartoon opposing the mandatory vaccination law in Brazil. “The Congress”, depicted as a Roman Caesar, threatens “the People”, in rags, with a sharp object and shackles.

Anti-vaccination activity increased again in the U.S. in the late 19th century. After a visit to New York in 1879 by William Tebb, a prominent British anti-vaccinationist, the Anti-Vaccination Society of America was founded. The New England Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was formed in 1882, and the Anti-Vaccination League of New York City in 1885.

John Pitcairn, the wealthy founder of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (now PPG Industries) emerged as a major financer and leader of the American anti-vaccination movement. On March 5, 1907, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he delivered an address to the Committee on Public Health and Sanitation of the Pennsylvania General Assembly criticizing vaccination.[78] He later sponsored the National Anti-Vaccination Conference, which, held in Philadelphia on October, 1908, led to the creation of The Anti-Vaccination League of America. When the League was organized later that month, Pitcairn was chosen to be its first president.[79] On December 1, 1911, he was appointed by Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener to the Pennsylvania State Vaccination Commission, and subsequently authored a detailed report strongly opposing the Commission’s conclusions.[79]. He continued to be a staunch opponent of vaccination until his death in 1916.

In November 1904, in response to years of inadequate sanitation and disease, followed by a poorly-explained public health campaign led by the renowned Brazilian public health official Oswaldo Cruz, citizens and military cadets in Rio de Janeiro arose in a Revolta da Vacina or Vaccine Revolt. Riots broke out on the day a vaccination law took effect; vaccination symbolized the most feared and most tangible aspect of a public health plan that included other features such as urban renewal that many had opposed for years.[80]

In the early 19th century, the anti-vaccination movement drew members from across a wide range of society; more recently, it has been reduced to a predominantly middle-class phenomenon.[81] Arguments against vaccines in the 21st century are often similar to those of 19th-century anti-vaccinationists.[3]



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[edit] Further reading

Anti-vaccinationist publications
  • 1884 Compulsory Vaccination in England by William Tebb
  • 1885 The Story of a Great Delusion by William White
  • 1898 Vaccination A Delusion by Alfred Russel Wallace
  • 1936 The Case Against Vaccination by M. Beddow Bayly M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P.
  • 1951 The Truth About Vaccination and Immunization by Lily Loat
  • 1957 The Poisoned Needle by Eleanor McBean
  • 1990 Universal Immunization: Miracle or Masterful Mirage by Dr. Raymond Obomsawin
  • 1993 Vaccination: 100 years of orthodox research shows that vaccines represent an assault on the immune system by Viera Scheibner. ISBN 0-646-15124-X
  • 2000 Behavioural Problems in Childhood by Viera Scheibner. ISBN 0-9578007-0-3


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