The (pseudo)scientific roots of anti-immunization

Samantha Liu ‘22

As the Biden administration sets hopes for mass immunization and a return to normalcy, it must face the hard resistance of a decades-long anti-vaccination movement. Hailing from groups as disparate as anti-regulation libertarians to fundamental evangelists, proponents of vaccine refusal may be difficult to understand. However, in the past decade, anti-immunization efforts have grown to threaten long standing public health policies.  This behavior results in  an equally chilling, equally absurdist ascension of Facebook-propogated pseudoscientific rhetoric–and, alongside it, human mortality rates.


Today, most parents overwhelmingly support vaccinating their children. Five estates have entirely eliminated religious exemptions for vaccines, and parents groups such as Votes for Vaccines have taken up the political fight for immunization. However, despite progressive action, the vaccination rate for diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) has fallen short of the herd immunity standard for three consecutive years. 


The modern anti-vaccination movement began in the small but renowned medical journal The Lancet, whose 1998 issue ran a paper by now-discredited physician Andrew Wakefield. His research hypothesized a new syndrome called autistic enterocolitis, a colon inflammatory disease and autism disorder resulting from vaccination. The study, small at the time, was publicized by Wakefield’s statements at a hospital press conference, in which he alluded to the dangers of combination dose vaccines such as the MMR vaccine which treats mumps, measles, and rubella. He demanded immediate suspension of dose administration until further research was conducted.


Since then, the study has been falsified repeatedly. In two recent analyses by the Annals of Internal Medicine and Journal of the American Medical Association, surveys found no evidence of MMR vaccines, nor other combination vaccines, triggering autism. Notably, the large-scale studies surveyed 600,000 and 10,000 children respectively, in contrast to Wakefield’s twelve participants. The Lancet has since retracted the article as well—editor Richard Horton called it “fatally flawed,” and ten of the paper’s co-authors have abjured their interpretations. Wakefield, who stands staunchly by his research, has been stripped of all medical and scientific licenses. 


Even neglecting its societal impact, the original study was dubiously researched, rife with scientific and technical inconsistencies. Because it relied on case reports, the evidence was largely anecdotal, considered the weakest type of evidence due to their inherently non-quantitative nature. Furthermore, case reports require inductive reasoning–that is, drawing a broad conclusion from a smaller instance.  In Wakefield’s case, anecdotes from twelve participants, all of whom were vaccinated children with developmental disorders, became proof that the MMR vaccine caused autism and bowel disease. 


Even within the already-problematic nature of the study’s experimental design, British investigative journalist Brian Deer found continued proof of evidence falsification. After speaking to the childrens’ families, he declared there was “no case was free of misreporting or alteration” (Belluz). Wakefield has also refused to replicate his experiment since 1998, choosing instead to have his license revoked and titles stripped. 


And the rabbithole runs deeper. While Wakefield attacked combination vaccines, he was concurrently applying for patents of single-disease vaccines–a financial conflict of interest he conveniently omitted from his paper. Two years later, an investigation by the General Medical Council found that the scientist had actually paid children at his son’s birthday party for blood samples. Eleven of the twelve children were allegedly subject to invasive tests, including MRI scans and lumbar punctures, administered without proper approval or pediatric qualifications. Whether from a scientific or ethical standpoint, Wakefield’s study was unprofessionally conducted and morally problematic, while its execution remains a bizarre perversion of the scientific process. 


However, while Wakefield may be to blame for the conception of the anti-vaccination movement, its propagation lies in a greater fault. Simply put, people listen to stories more than they do numbers. The paper’s dependence on case studies not only  eradicated its professional legitimacy, but also became the reason for its ascension to mainstream, as media companies capitalized on its easy-to-follow anecdotes. A similar trend took hold in 2007, when actor Jenny McCarthy insisted post hoc ergo propter hoc that vaccines caused her son’s autism. Indeed, a BBC news report finds it was Wakefield’s appearance at the first press conference, not his study, which fueled the vaccination scare. 


Of course, sensationalist headlines and clickbait titles need no introduction today: aside from McCarthy, the anti-vaccination crusade has been picked up by celebrities Kevin Gates, Jim Carrey, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose testimonies seem to exert more influence than most medical journals. Former President Trump also met with leaders of the anti-vaccination movement in the past, though with a surge in measles, now endorses vaccination. Still, his fiery anti-science rhetoric, combined with skepticism of Big Pharma, effectively undermines his supporter base’s faith in public health, made apparent in a prolonged pandemic.  


In short, as Dr. Paul A. Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia says, “Science has become just another voice in the room.” In the twenty-first century, infatuated with autonomy and skepticism, it certainly is a very big room.