Child receiving a shot from a nurse


The greatest public health achievement in human history has been the advent, development, and steadfast implementation of vaccines. Using vaccines, two virulent diseases—smallpox and rinderpest—have been eradicated from the globe, and many others that have tortured and killed humans and other animals for centuries, if not millennia, have been forced to the brink. Hundreds of millions of lives have been saved, and billions of lives have been vastly improved.

The History of Vaccines and Vaccine Denial

Globally, and in the United States and United Kingdom especially, a political battle has sometimes raged between those concerned foremost with public health and those motivated by a misguided and extreme individualism. Those who resist vaccination have at times relied on strains of anti-establishment resentment towards medical authorities and the state, surging along on a torrent of ignorance about the morbid pandemics of even our most recent history. More important than resistance to vaccines based on political ideology, however, has been the resistance resulting from religion and pseudoscience. Very often the forces arrayed against vaccination have found their inspiration in religious dogma, but in recent decades a more conspiratorial, pseudoscientific paranoia has arisen alongside to inspire further vaccine refusal.

The MMR Vaccine-Autism Fraud and Fallout

Following the 1998 publication of unethical profiteer-doctor Andrew Wakefield’s dishonest and now-retracted paper in The Lancet—claiming a link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine and autism and intestinal disorders—the backlash against vaccines erupted anew. Aided by celebrity endorsement and promotion from the likes of Jenny McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and others (some of who now deny ever doing so), along with numerous acts of flagrantly irresponsible science journalism, all manner of unfounded claims and conspiracies were leveled at a number of vaccines, vaccine makers, and medical authorities. They have been particularly effective in sowing doubt about vaccine safety with emotional appeals to the safety of children, often using their own children as anecdotal examples. In spite of those claims being universally dismantled, newer vaccines, such as Gardasil, which safely protects against Human Papillomavirus (HPV), have been subject to the same anti-scientific and conspiratorial thinking ignited by Wakefield’s false claims.

Diseases Once Thought Tamed Rage Again

As with many modern social contagions, the beliefs of the formerly fringe anti-vaccination movement have been injected into the mainstream via mass media and the Internet. Subsequently, vaccination rates have dropped, and as medical science warned, where vaccination rates have dropped herd immunity has been compromised. In those voids (see this harrowing map from the Netherlands for one example), the vaccines’ target diseases have risen from the grave, especially tormenting the pregnant, the newborn, the sick, the elderly, and those unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Measles, Pertussis, and even child-paralyzing polio have seen a resurgence in places where they were once thought to be vanquished, or nearly so. California, New York, and other states have seen outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) centered on the unvaccinated in recent years. In the United States, 2011 marked a 15-year high for Measles cases. New York, Ohio, California, Indiana, and the District of Columbia have all seen outbreaks centered on the unvaccinated.

Internationally, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, and various European Union nations have all seen significant outbreaks of measles. Polio has reemerged in Pakistan, and has spread to war-torn Syria, Iraq, Equatorial Guinea, and Cameroon, where public health officials and their vaccines cannot easily pursue it.

Where to Fight Back

  • Despite evidence directly linking them to unnecessary illness, suffering, and death, most US states still allow vaccine exemptions for non-medical reasons. 48 states tolerate refusal to vaccinate based on religious belief, and 18 honor an objection based merely on philosophical beliefs or conscience. (Croatia, meanwhile, has mandated all children be vaccinated.)
  • The forces of anti-vaccination—both secular and religious—now target new vaccines (such as proven-safe Gardasil) while continuing to trumpet the thoroughly disproven claims that vaccines are linked to autism and other neurological conditions.
  • The forces of anti-vaccination attack the schedule by which vaccines are administered, which has also been proven safe.
  • The forces of anti-vaccination repeatedly gain the attention of lawmakers at both the state and federal level, including holding multiple briefings for Congressional members and staff.
  • Anti-vaccination activists continue to malign and misrepresent good-faith efforts by government and public health officials to mitigate the known actual, but very rare side effects of vaccines, through initiatives like the VAERS database and Vaccine Court.
  • Anti-scientific anti-vaccine paranoia is being exported from the West to the developing world, where people are in dire need of the protection only vaccines can provide.

The suffering and the dead increase by the day, yet all the while we’ve known exactly how to save them. Help us fight back wherever you can, whether in your community, your local government, or at the state, federal, or even international level (learn more here). Few public policy battles demand such a universal effort in the name of sound science, but such an effort is exactly what must be done to keep a long history of disease and suffering behind us for good.


This section will be updated as news develops on this topic.