Image Source: Harvard University, Science In The News
By Rishi Sharma and Soyeon Park
Editor-in-chief and the Feature Editor
An unvaccinated six-year-old boy had a near-death experience with tetanus after getting a laceration on his forehead while he played on his family’s farm. He was rushed to the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital and was given an emergency dose of the tetanus vaccine. After being hospitalized for over 2 months under a treatment plan costing around $1 million, the boy survived.
Unlike most other vaccine-treatable diseases, one shot of the tetanus vaccine does not instil immunity in the body. Healthy adults are recommended a dose of tetanus booster shot every 10 years. The hospital urged his parents to give him a second dose of the vaccine. Despite this and their son’s close encounter with death, the parents refused to consent to the second dose, which took the hospital staff by shock.
“When I read that, my jaw dropped,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an expert in infectious diseases and chair at the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “I could not believe it. That’s a tragedy and a misunderstanding and I’m just flabbergasted. This is an awful disease […] We have had a mechanism to completely prevent it and the reason that we have virtually no cases any more in the United States is because we vaccinate, literally, everyone.”
This case, following the measles outbreak, once again raised awareness on the importance of vaccination amid the ongoing anti-vaccination movement in the United States. Measles had been declared eradicated from the US nearly 20 years ago; however, states in the Pacific Northwest have reported over 100 cases of measles since January.
Oregon in particular has one of the highest unvaccinated resident rates in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7.5% of kindergarteners are unvaccinated and several schools have vaccination rates below 80% – lower than some developing countries like Guatemala and India.
According to the World Health Organization, vaccines are one of the most successful public health protectors, saving around 3 million lives annually. Despite its achievements, hesitancy towards vaccination is listed as one of the top threats to global health in 2019. Radical vaccine refusers oppose to all vaccines, including compulsory vaccinations, deeming them harmful. More moderates worry about their side effects or cost and health insurance.
These ‘anti-vaxxers’ are driven by concerns over safety, religion, anti-government sentiment, and misleading information. Experts say that the belief that vaccines are harmful for the body was reignited in the 21st century by a paper published by a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield.
His paper linked the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine to the development of autism in children, leading parents to abandon vaccination. Though the paper was soon widely debunked by a great number of studies, it was enough to spread paranoia and misinformation throughout the world.
The number of kids failing to receive even a single vaccine is constantly on the rise. A CDC report found that 0.3% kids of ages 19 to 35 months were unvaccinated in 2001; this figure increased to 1.3% in 2015.
The spread and distortion of the anti-vaccination message are largely attributed to social media platforms that brought the matter into the mainstream. According to David R. Curry, executive director of the Center for Vaccine Ethics and Policy, cost-effective and widespread social media platforms are mainly used by anti-vaccine groups to spread their message.
In response, global social media companies launched pro-vaccine efforts. YouTube stopped providing advertisements to ‘anti-vax’ channels and Pinterest blocked all searches that include vaccine-related terms. Facebook followed suit and announce on March 7 that they would ban posts that demonstrated anti-vaccination propaganda and pages that spread vaccine-related misinformation.
Tetanus occurrence rate declined drastically in the US after the introduction of its vaccine in the 1940s. Today, the disease occurs exclusively in unvaccinated and under-vaccinated people. “When people decide not to be immunized as a matter of personal preference or misinformation, they put themselves and others at risk of disease,” said the American Medical Association CEO and executive vice president Dr. James Madara. “That is why it is extremely important that people who are searching for information about vaccination have access to accurate, evidence-based information grounded in science.”