Debunking anti-vaccine conspiracies

Opposition to vaccination has been around for a long time


n defence of conspiracy theories it is important to remember a couple of things. First, of course, is that all good spy novels and many adventure novels are based on well-designed conspiracy theories. Where would James Bond be without conspiracies hatched by SMERSH and SPECTRE? And what would Smiley’s People be doing without the KGB?

And second, that in real life not all conspiracy theories are hatched by people with paranoid delusions. There is a quote often attributed to Henry Kissinger, the former United States secretary of state: “Even paranoiacs have enemies”.

Today, however my focus is on a particular type of conspiracy theory that is generally harmful for the health of people. Some of these conspiracy theories are related to the efficacy of vaccinations in preventing certain contagious diseases that in the past have been a bane for mankind.

Small pox has disappeared as a disease and polio is virtually on the brink of disappearance, all this because of the success of vaccination against these two horrible diseases. Yet, we have over the last few decades seen an increasing anti-vaccination sentiment in many countries.

Opposition to vaccination has been around for a long time. What we call ‘modern’ medicine was not very modern or efficacious a century or so ago. As a consequence what we refer to as ‘alternate’ medicine today became quite popular.

Homeopathy, chiropractic, osteopathy, appeared as alternatives to what was then called allopathic medicine. Of course, in many parts of the world older forms of medical systems were already well established.

In our part of the world we already had the Hippocratic system of medicine (Tibb-e-Unani) and the Ayurvedic system of medicine. And none of what we now call alternative systems of medicine accepted that vaccination was an effective way to prevent any disease.

After all if you believe that disease is caused by an imbalance of the bodily ‘humours’ (Hippocratic system of medicine) or that disease is a result of mal-alignment of the spine (chiropractic) then where does vaccination come into play?

By the middle of the last century medicine had become advanced enough to replace all other non-scientific medical systems as the primary form of treatment of disease. And with that, vaccination became an accepted way to prevent certain communicable/contagious diseases.

As a result, vaccination of children against many diseases became very common and even mandatory in some countries. Of course, vaccination prevented the development of disease in the future and as such its benefits were not immediately obvious.

Such enforcement brought out different groups of people that opposed vaccination. Besides the believers in alternative medicine we now also had social libertarians and religious conservatives who oppose any mandatory laws about how to take care of their children.

So we had a group of people from different parts of society that opposed vaccination for different reasons. Fortunately, they were not too many or well organised enough to prevent vaccination of a majority of children.

About twenty five years ago a medical report that has now been completely debunked came out suggesting a connection between autism in children and vaccination. This report coincided with a rapid increase in the number of reported cases of autism in children over the next few decades. Autism is a spectrum of conditions in children that can produce considerable developmental problems.

Now we also had parents from almost all walks of life that started worrying about vaccination and the increasing incidence of autism in children. As the internet developed and different social media became available all the anti-vaccination groups became able to communicate with each other, organise and share information about the ‘evils’ of vaccination.

Much of this information was based on incorrect and unscientific studies that can be called ‘fake news’. Slowly conspiracy theories started to creep into the picture. The obvious conspirator was the pharmaceutical industry now referred to as Big Pharma that manufactured and pushed vaccination to make more profits.

In our part of the world especially among the more conservative religious groups, vaccination is not very common at all. Recent attempts at vaccination against polio were met with some resistance. Since polio vaccination is at present almost entirely funded by foreign groups therefore conspiracy theories arose to justify resistance to these attempts at vaccination.

The most prevalent conspiracy theory against vaccination is based on the idea that this is an attempt to sterilise children and prevent increase in the number of Pakistanis in the future. The origin of this conspiracy is either India or else the US. Sadly, some polio workers have also been shot and killed in some areas in Pakistan.

Even though they are small in number but when combined with the modern anti-scientific movement sweeping through conservative politicians, the anti-vaxxers are finding support on different political forums.

Here it is important to point out that the polio vaccine has been accused of much untrue effects but never of causing sterility among children. But there is a vaccine that does prevent sterility among adolescent males. That is the vaccine against mumps.

Mumps is a relatively innocuous disease except in adolescent males in which it can cause sterility. Some older male relatives and others I know of who grew up during the fifties probably had mumps and went on to become sterile.

Today, the anti-vaccination groups are lumped together as ‘anti-vaxxers’. Even though they are small in number, combined with the modern anti-scientific movement sweeping through conservative politicians, the anti-vaxxers are finding support on various political forums.

Here in the interest of full disclosure I must admit that as a child of two doctors I was vaccinated against all possible diseases during my childhood and that I have never had any of those diseases over the last fifty years. All of my children were also inoculated at the recommended ages against many communicable diseases.

The writer has served as professor and chairman at the department of cardiac surgery, King Edward Medical University

Debunking anti-vaccine conspiracies