B.C. vaccination rates drop amid 'misinformation' campaign
Jon Woodward, CTV Vancouver
Published Monday, March 24, 2014 6:30PM PDT
Last Updated Wednesday, March 26, 2014 3:55PM PDT
An organized campaign by anti-vaccination groups to sow doubt about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines has helped push some vaccination rates among kindergarten-aged children in B.C. to their lowest levels in a decade.
And that campaign – which health officials say is riddled with misinformation, bad science and paranoia – is likely going to result in more outbreaks of the kind that made more than 200 unvaccinated people sick with the measles in the Fraser Valley this month.
“It’s challenging. It’s frustrating. We have to continually work at educating the public as to the risks that these diseases continue to pose, and the benefits of getting the vaccine,” said Dr. David Scheifele, who runs the Vaccine Evaluation Centre at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
The medical establishment is firmly on the side of vaccines being safe, and that vaccination in general has saved more lives than any other public health advance. Debilitating diseases like polio have been eradicated in North America, chiefly through widespread vaccine use, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
But that scientific consensus is hardly reflected online, where parents concerned about vaccine safety can find websites that run the gamut from allegations that vaccines cause autism, to allegations that doctors look the other way from vaccine’s ill effects because they have been bought off by a powerful vaccination industry.
Googling “vaccine risks” brings up a promoted link to an anti-vaccine website. While the top hit brings a searcher to the American Centre for Disease Control, the next one down is the B.C.-based Vaccination Risk Awareness Network, which includes web stories of people who believe their children were hurt by vaccines.
Another group, the Vancouver-based Vaccine Resistance Movement, is run by Joel Lord, who operates their website from his East Vancouver home.
“It’s such a deep rabbit hole,” he told CTV News. “There are so many layers to this.”
Lord is a prolific writer, having published scores of articles on the VRM’s website. His organization held an anti-vaccine summit in Vancouver last year. He promotes what he calls a vaccine-free natural approach, because he believes the chemicals in vaccines are behind severe damage to children’s developing brains.
“Look into the eyes of a child who has been seriously damaged by these early childhood shots and you have to go no further,” he said.
Lord says the movement is getting help from high-profile celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, who has said publicly that vaccines caused autism in her son.
Efforts of people like Lord appear to be winning ground. In 2005, 81.4 per cent of kindergarten-age children in B.C. had received the five-in-one DaPTP vaccine, which provides protection against whooping cough, tetanus, polio, diphtheria, and haemophilus influenzae.
By 2012, that had dropped to 75.5 per cent – meaning about one in four children hadn’t been vaccinated.
That’s frustrating health professionals who are actively monitoring adverse reactions to vaccines that people like Lord are warning about – and aren’t finding anything.
Concerns about vaccine safety in the 1980s prompted officials to set up Impact, the Immunization Monitoring Program, Active, which looks at every single reported case of vaccine adverse reactions in 12 hospitals across Canada, and possible adverse reactions including admissions to neurology wards.
“We do a lot of searching and find very few problems. And we’re not finding anything new or worrisome,” said Scheifele.
Dr. Scheifele says they monitor about 1500 cases a year, and in every case where a parent believes vaccines have resulted in sickness, and actively search out cases where neurological damage is suspected. An assessment is done for each child.
The results of some two decades of monitoring have found no cases where autism has resulted from a vaccine. The reason, he says, is a co-incidence – many of these symptoms appear at the same time in a child’s development as their vaccine schedule.
“It’s human nature to try to find connections between events. I’m not at all surprised that parents are making those connections. That’s why we need science to find the truth. What appears to be connected isn’t connected,” Dr. Scheifele said.
The connection between autism and vaccines has been thoroughly debunked by a range of studies, according to a variety of health authorities, including the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization, the Mayo Clinic and the American Centre for Disease Control. The researcher who published the original paper in a prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, had an undeclared financial conflict of interest, a British medical board found. The study was recalled, while the author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was barred from practicing medicine.
There can be negative side effects to vaccines. For example, the worst case scenario of a measles vaccine would be brain swelling, which happens in about one in a million cases, Dr. Scheifele said. But the disease itself is about 1000 times worse, with brain swelling happening in one in a thousand cases.
“One in a thousand odds in a lottery, you’d be buying tickets. That’s a good chance. Turn it around, that’s a serious risk. That should give people pause,” he said.
And if you believe that your unvaccinated child simply won’t come in contact with the disease, think again – a Colorado study showed that unvaccinated children were about 40 times more likely to be infected, said Scheifele. That’s because the disease is very infectious – and unvaccinated children tend to be part of the same social groups.
The perfect case study for a world without vaccination exists in some pockets of the third world, where a lack of vaccines lead to illness and death. More than 100,000 children die each year because of the measles.
Scheifele says the spread of misinformation on the internet has surprised the medical establishment, he said.
“The capacity for misinformation to spread rapidly is something we haven’t figured out how to combat effectively,” he said.