The vaccine backlash is a risk to public health

The worst possible way to respond to a mutating flu virus is to dismiss vaccinations


At the end of 2014, there was concern that potential vaccinations against the Ebola virus could be slow to develop, because fear and suspicion would make people in the affected countries hesitant about taking part in trials.

The reluctance of West Africans to take a perceived risk in the midst of humanitarian tragedy is understandable. With widespread uncertainty about how the disease is transmitted, and the presence of Western doctors inevitably associated with high death tolls, it makes perfect sense that the vaccines were viewed with suspicion.

What makes less sense, to me at least, is the backlash that is currently taking place in the US and the UK about vaccines which public health services have relied on for years.

In California a measles outbreak – the state now has 107 confirmed cases – has exposed the vehemence of anti-vaccine movements in the US. On Monday the California Department of Health was forced to issue a warning to parents after unconfirmed reports that some were intentionally exposing their unvaccinated children to other children with the virus in an attempt at ‘natural’ vaccination.

In 2014 the World Health Organisation estimated that between 2000 and 2012, 13.8 million deaths have been prevented by measles vaccination, with reported cases declining by 77 per cent.

After the MMR/autism link research, which has been conclusively discredited and retracted, public figures like Jenny McCarthy have fuelled a growing anti-vaccination movement which is causing real concern amongst health professionals. By arrogantly acting against scientific consensus, parents are putting their children, and untold others, at risk.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail writes today that:

“The highest winter death toll for 15 years has followed the flu vaccination fiasco in which millions of people were given useless jabs.”

It’s not that the figures are wrong – so far in the 2014/15 flu season there have been 481 outbreaks (349 in care homes, 67 in schools, 60 in hospitals and five in other settings), and the mortality rate has been higher than usual this season, with the flu jab providing as little as three per cent effectiveness. It’s the claim that the jab is ‘useless’ which is irresponsible.

It takes six months to produce a new vaccine. This means that by the time the World Health Organisation had identified a new strain of influenza A (H3N2) last March, it was too late to change the production of the vaccine. Although the new strain has been the predominant one, it has not been the only one, meaning that the jab still provides protection against some winter illnesses.

Dr Onkar Sahota, a London GP, says:

“There will still be some strains which are prevented by the flu jab, but not all of them. It’s still worth getting the flu jab as it will still be working against some strains and certainly doesn’t do any harm.

“The way the flu vaccine is produced means this kind of problem is always a possibility. Until we get the scientific advances necessary to reduce the production time for flu inoculations, mutations in the flu virus run the risk of making the treatments less effective.” 

Headlines like those in the Mail and the Telegraph are misleading because they suggest that the vaccine, not the virus, is at fault. GPs continue to recommend that over-65s, pregnant women and people with certain chronic diseases get the jab. If these kinds of vulnerable people stop bothering to be vaccinated, they risk impacting herd immunity; this is now a real concern in California.

Furthermore, the negative press that the vaccines are receiving is detracting from the bigger problems the health service faces. It is hard to predict the way that a virus will mutate, but we can predict that mutations are a possibility. Therefore, the unprecedented burden that A&E departments have faced this winter could have been prevented. As Dr Sahota says:

“Whilst the reduced effectiveness of the flu vaccine is undoubtedly causing some problems, the government’s attempt to blame it for the problems we’ve faced in A&Es and hospitals recently is deeply cynical. The Department of Health always knew this was a possibility and should have planned accordingly.”

In 2000, the Department of Health was heavily criticised because only a third of over-65s were having the flu vaccination. In 2014/15, more than 70 per cent of this group have been vaccinated. This behavioural change will, overall, prove to be good for public health, but misleading headlines can easily turn back the clock.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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9 Responses to “The vaccine backlash is a risk to public health”

  1. Gary Scott

    The problem with vaccination shyness is that despite many years of denials, the people believe conspiracy theorists rather than their own government. Instead of giving detailed, like for like figures they have simply rubbished genuine concern, effectively calling them stupid. The original claims were made by a doctor and although completely discredited by his peers, many will either not know this or not know why. If parents have concerns we should be answering their questions with hard facts. No one would expect vaccinations to be completely risk free, giving more information can clear this up. Ultimately, if parents decide to postpone or even to refuse vaccination we have to accept their right to do so. Calling them ‘vaxxers’ etc and demonising is only causing opinion to polarise and heels to be dug in. More kids are recognised today as being on the Autistic Spectrum, if a child is vaccinated two or three years after their peers it is better than not being vaccinated at all. I fully understand that the danger time is between 1-5 years but its still better to have some coverage than none. Treat them like they are grown-ups, surely we can understand if they don’t always trust our government?

  2. Jan

    Why would anyone trust or believe what the government say??? Do your research and stop spouting media rubbish. The majority of doctors do not do their own research into vaccines but rely on pharmaceutical companies that get fined billions every year for falsifying research evidence. The loss of billions to big pharma is nothing – they make obscene profits from the sick. Vaccine damage exists and if you saw the results of such damage it might make you more cautious with your propaganda. Shame on you.

  3. Rich

    “Vaccine damage exists”
    [citation needed]

  4. Rich

    I agree with everything you say except this: “Ultimately, if parents decide to postpone or even to refuse vaccination we have to accept their right to do so.”
    They should not have the right to do so, at all. Vaccination should be mandatory.
    Of course it would be better to provide enough easily understandable information to persuade someone to do the right thing, rather than force them. In the end though, vaccination is more about managing the risk to the wider population than to the individual. It should not be left to one misinformed parent to decide.

  5. Joe Bloggs

    We have no Smallpox anywhere in the world, because of vaccination, neither do we have Polio anywhere that the population is vaccinated.
    Speaks for itself.

  6. Dave Stewart

    Also Pharma companies don’t actually make very much money out of vaccinations in comparison to their other products. Vacinations aren’t very profitable because you need to produce lots and lots of them at a price that can be afforded by governments on mass, they typically require very time consuming process to make (hence the 6 months lead time mentioned in the article). So to say that Pharma companies are lying about vaccinations to make money is a little wide of the mark. It would be way more profitable to make up various vaguely defined anxiety disorders and prescribe very expensive sedatives and/or stimulents to children and adults on a repeat prescription which coincidentally is more or less what is going on. Pharma companies are by no means paradigms of virtue but not everything they do is evil.

    May I ask what research you have personally done into the side effects of vaccinations? If you are going to criticism doctors for accepting the scientific consensus and not doing their own personal research on the side effects you had better not being doing the same thing only rather than accepting the rigorously peer reviewed output of scientific experts you are getting your information from other less credible source. It would make you seem rather hypocritical.

    It is very tiring hearing this spurious line that scientific opinion is somehow trying to mislead the public. It takes a very long time and a hell of lot of work to become an expert in a scientific field and clearly it is not feasible for everyone to be an expert in everything that affects them therefore you just need to accept the opinions of those who know more about it than you. Obviously you should look at everything you’re told with a critical eye but this default scientists are lying to us for (insert ulterior motive here) is ridiculous.

    I am a scientist by the way.

  7. Guest

    The “damage” is the kids who get ill and die because of your myths. Damage you rejoice in, sadly.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Not to mention the fact that “big pharma” could make a lot of money treating disease when it happened rather than vaccinating.

    The economic argument against vaccination is more than a bit silly.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    There’s a sharp difference between trusting government, and trusting the overwhelming body of evidence generated by scientists across the world, over decades.

    Same thing with AGCC. And GM. And..

    Vaxxers are vaxxers, who have fallen for and spread damaging hoaxes. You give them far too much credence. Kids not vaccinated, for anything but valid medical reasons, should not be allowed in the UK’s school system.

    (That you bring up AS shows you buy the myths)

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