It’s time to talk about vaccinations

It’s been a long time since I sat down to write a blog, but what’s happening right now in Ireland has motivated me out of my slumber.

Vaccination programs in Ireland are going through some troubled times. Though we have a well-established program designed to provide the best possible protection from some awful conditions, people who believe that vaccines cause autism or other unspecified health issues are increasingly being given publicity in papers, on tv, on the radio, and online.

Recently, REGRET have been occupying a lot of media time, and their campaign against the HPV vaccine has already borne some very bitter fruit – the number of people getting the vaccine has almost halved. This week also brought the news that the makers of the VAXXED movie plan to come and visit Ireland with their particular brand of anti-vaccination propaganda.

This is not ok.

HPV and the Cervical Cancer Vaccine

70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. 70%. Recent academic work suggests that this number might be as high as 90%.

Two strains of HPV in particular are responsible for this number, 16, and 18. Both of these strains are covered by this vaccine.

I appreciate that parents have concerns for their children. Of course they do, it makes perfect sense – parents only want the best for their children, and that includes their health! And I know that a lot of people just brush off these concerns and that it doesn’t reassure parents as much as it possibly could. It’s unfortunate because it’s maybe not the best way to always address these concerns, but these comments are also coming from a place of concern and worry.

The majority of cervical cancers are caused by two of the HPV strains protected against by the vaccine, and there is evidence linking HPV with vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers also. And since the introduction of the vaccine cervical cancer diagnoses have dropped by 50%. That is half the number of families who will go through the pain, stress, and upset of a sick family member, and that is hugely significant. So when people complain about anti-vaxxers, it is also from a place of concern – concern that these numbers will change for the worse. Concern that people won’t be protected, and concern that young women will continue to get cervical cancer, even though it is preventable.

I know that the issues reported by some are a cause for concern, and I know that these girls are having health issues. But all the available evidence suggests that these issues are not caused by the vaccine. There are a number of health conditions which have similar symptoms to those most frequently reported, and these conditions often present in teenage years. Just like the MMR and autism, the issue is correlation rather than causation – i.e. just because two things happen together does not mean one has caused the other, and it’s not scientifically correct to assume so. Unfortunately, there are a number of medical conditions which present in adolescence and early adulthood, and it is at these times that many girls are receiving the vaccines.

Groups like Regret are calling for investigations, but those investigations have already happened. And overwhelmingly, those investigations have deemed the vaccine to be safe, and life-saving. These girls and their families need help and support for whatever medical conditions are affecting them, absolutely, but those conditions were not caused by the vaccine. Sadly, groups like Regret are also frequently misrepresenting information in order to push for these investigations, and that is very hard for some people (myself included) to see. In their TV3 “documentary”, for example, they talk to one girl who is now unable to go to school because she is unwell and having seizures. Every article about this girl says that she had her first seizures after the vaccine. But in the documentary, her mother talks about how she was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child after having a number of seizures. It is sad that this girl is unwell again, but it’s simply not accurate to represent her medical history as “perfectly well until vaccine” or “no seizures until vaccine”, and yet this is how Regret repeatedly present her case.

Though there have been repeated calls for the HSE to investigate these claims, it’s not really up to the HSE to address the issues any more than they already have done. The HSE isn’t the group to do additional studies or investigate these claims. They have noted the evidence for the safety of the vaccine on their sites, they have sent representatives to comment on it repeatedly. There have already been numerous worldwide studies on the vaccine, and they have shown it to be safe and effective. They have also not found any evidence linking it to the medical issues that some girls are experiencing.

In 2012, my dad passed away after battling cancer for the second time. If there was a vaccine to prevent this happening, to prevent his type of cancer, I would take it in a heartbeat. The pain of losing a family member will never leave me, it utterly changed our family. At the same time, our neighbour also passed away from cervical cancer. She also left behind a family who were heartbroken. This vaccine prevents tragedies like this. Families receiving the worst kind of news and saying the hardest goodbyes. Cervical cancer is a preventable cancer and people who instill fear about the vaccine will ultimately be responsible for girls going unprotected and more cancer diagnoses.

MMR and autism

While studying for my MSc, I researched the purported MMR/autism link from a science communication perspective. It is a very sticky controversy, which persists despite ample evidence that it is not true. It changes itself in response to the evidence, first claiming that mercury in the vaccines causes autism, then pivoting to blame other preservatives once it was established that mercury was no longer present in the vaccine. It is a many-headed beast which refuses to die.

There is a wealth of information about how doctors, scientists, and the media all spoke about the MMR vaccine during the height of the scandal, and it has never been more important to consider this information and use it to inform how we communicate about vaccines. Ultimately, it is well established that there is no link between the MMR and a child developing autism. In the many millions of doses that have been given, a link has never been proved. But the myth persists because of groups who prop it up, media who give them a platform, and scientists who do a bad job of addressing the very real fears that parents have. If we don’t change this now, history will repeat itself. This is already happening with the HPV vaccine and will continue to blight medical progress.

Then, and now, parents are led to believe that there is an equal amount of evidence on both sides of the debate by multiple media accounts which opt to provide “balance” above and beyond accuracy. Parents don’t just frivolously decide not to vaccinate – they were more likely to not allow the MMR vaccine, for example, if they had experience with a family member or friend’s child who had developed autism – they decide based on their experiences with autism, their worries about their children, and their understanding of the perceived debate or controversy within the medical community about the safety of the vaccine. With the MMR vaccine, there were a lot of opportunities to communicate with parents, but most of the communications were instead addressed to scientists and doctors who already believed the MMR was safe. These communications weren’t clear to everyone and weren’t accessible to people who needed information to make a crucial decision. While it was necessary to debunk the false claims about the MMR, doing so by dismissing parents’ fears as irrational, superstitious, or stupid was ineffective, and didn’t address the genuine fears and concerns that parents held.

All available evidence suggests that the MMR is safe and effective. All available evidence also suggests that conditions like Measles, like Mumps, like a hundred other things we can now vaccinate against, have terrible, and potentially fatal, results. Mumps may seem like a sore throat, but it can also render men infertile. Measles may seem like a bad dose of the chickenpox, but it causes the most vaccine-preventable deaths of any disease. Rubella can lead to hearing and sight loss, and profound brain damage.

The MMR doesn’t contain thiomersal anymore, and even when it did, thiomersal doesn’t contain the kind of mercury which accumulates in the body and causes issues. Andrew Wakefield lost his license because his unethical, unapproved, biased research didn’t meet any reasonable standard, and the damage he has done is profound and long-lasting. He was struck off the register because his paper (on which he based his press conferences about the MMR) was fraudulent. No researcher has been able to reproduce or validate the claims that he made, and many have tried. Before he submitted the paper, he received £55,000 from solicitors who were seeking evidence that vaccines had caused problems in certain children, and he didn’t inform anybody. This is a clear conflict of interest, and further investigations showed that he had ultimately been paid almost £500,000 over a period of time to find evidence that these vaccines had caused problems, and that he had filed patents for rival vaccines. This man launched a campaign which permanently damaged the reputation of a safe and effective vaccine, and when he did so, it was not because he was concerned about the children. It was for personal financial gain. It was all about the money.

When people make claims that Big Pharma is keeping people sick or suppressing cures, they often imply that it is for financial gain. While there are many pharmaceutical companies who have been guilty of unethical behaviour, it is important to also look at the people pointing the finger. People who have made these claims are very often not motivated by what is best for the children, but by their own desire for financial gain. Many people who promote alternative cures to diseases do so because they stand to gain financially from them, not simply because they wish to tap nature’s potential for healing. The alternative health industry is a profitable one, and its financial figures rival those of any large pharmaceutical company.

What can be done

For those like me who don’t believe the scaremongering about vaccines, perhaps a better response would be to not get frustrated when we see these things misrepresented, but it’s hard not to when you see the same things over and over again. I know parents want the best for their children, but I also know that people are lying about the safety of these vaccines and that that is not the best for anyone’s children.

The media must step up and see beyond the need to fill human interest space. If people are unwell, it is important that they get help, but when the result is a serious impact on the uptake of life-saving, disease-preventing vaccinations, it is also important that we get them help without propping up untrue claims about what has made them ill. With the MMR, we have seen the damage that can be done when we imply that there is equal merit to, or equal evidence for, both sides of a debate. In short, claims about vaccines put lives at risk, and flattering unquestioning publicity is dangerous. Parents deserve better this time around.

Don’t support VAXXED if and when they travel to Ireland. Don’t take their claims at face value. Ask questions, but please ask the right questions of the right sources. There are lots of excellent resources about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, particularly the MMR and the HPV vaccine, both of which have been in use in numerous countries for years, and which have had a real and lasting (positive!) impact on the health of people everywhere. None of those resources have Regret or VAXXED in the title.