Health and Medicine

One Map Sums Up The Damage Caused By The Anti-Vaccination Movement

January 24, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Council on Foreign Relations

Vaccinations are one of the of most incredible aspects of modern medicine. They can make previously lethal diseases disappear from society and save countless lives. There is, however, a chance that the vaccines work a little too well and our collective memory is too short to remember the devastating effects some of these diseases caused just a few short decades ago. Recently, for reasons that are not based on science or logic, many parents have outspokenly rejected vaccinating their children. Unfortunately, this has caused a reemergence of easily managed diseases. The Council on Foreign Relations has released an interactive map detailing the catastrophic outcome of these poor choices. 

The interactive map gives a gut-wrenching tour of global outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and whooping cough from 2008-2014. These diseases -- all of which are easily prevented by vaccines -- can have dire consequences. The CDC estimates that 164,000 people around the world will die from measles each year, and it is experiencing quite a resurgence in the UK. The United States has recently seen a drastic increase in whooping cough, which causes around 195,000 deaths per year. The majority of these deaths occur in impoverished regions with very little access to vaccines. In the case of developed areas like the US or UK, they shouldn’t be happening at all.

Update (10/24/2014): CFR's map has now been updated to document attacks on health care workers, which have been increasing in recent years. These attacks are indicated on the map with red triangles. Additionally, these attacks correlate with increased instance of disease, including a polio outbreak in Afghanistan. Socio-economic trends can also be seen, as incedence of measles and whooping cough are increasing in wealthier areas like the US and UK, while poorer areas indicate lacking adequate supplies and give health officials a clear idea of where efforts need to be increased.

But how did it all begin?

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield released a paper claiming to have linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to the onset of autism. No other scientist was ever able to match Wakefield’s findings, and in the coming years, it became known that Wakefield had a financial conflict of interest. In 2010, an ethics review board found that he had falsified the data in his report, causing an immediate retraction of his original paper and revocation of his medical license. Despite the fact most scientists opposed Wakefield’s “findings” from the start, some were all too eager to jump on the anti-MMR bandwagon.

Among those leading the charge against vaccines is Jenny McCarthy, the Playboy Bunny-turned-pseudoscience advocate. McCarthy began speaking out against vaccines in 2007, as she believed they caused her son’s autism. Based on her son’s symptoms, some believe the boy actually has Landau-Kleffner syndrome. She has written a few books (including one with a foreword by Wakefield himself) continually claiming that vaccines cause autism and that she cured her son’s disorder with alternative treatment, without a shred of credible medical evidence. In the face of a possible misdiagnosis and absolutely no scientific evidence to support the claim that vaccines cause autism, she remains unchanged in her opinion. Unfortunately, her celebrity status has given her a platform to use anecdotal (not scientific) evidence to urge parents against vaccines.

Of course, absolutely nothing is without risk and there can be side effects from vaccines, but those are incredibly rare. Some people are unable to be vaccinated due to allergies or other medical conditions. This makes it altogether more important for those who can get vaccinated to do so, creating a herd immunity for our most vulnerable members of society.

The full version of the map is available on CFR’s website.

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