When I was an infant I had whooping cough and was ill for three months. I don’t remember it, of course, but I know it was very distressing for my parents. I do remember later trips with my researcher father to his laboratory where he worked on a vaccine for polio and to hospitals where infected children my own age were on iron lungs. That was very distressing.
I mention this because today people don’t see such diseases. They aren’t frightened about whooping cough or polio. In contrast, 100% of parents in Western Australia had their children vaccinated against polio when the vaccine was made available in 1956. Why? They were scared of their kids getting polio, a terrible disease as reflected in its other name, infantile paralysis.
Because today’s parents don’t have first-hand experience with dangerous infectious diseases they can be misled by myths about the supposed dangers of childhood vaccination: for instance, whooping cough vaccine causes brain damage; the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism and vaccination causes cot death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
There is no truth to any of these claims. We in Australia have some of the best population data in the world on vaccination outcomes in children and it’s absolutely clear these myths are just that, myths.
The whooping cough myth started in the 1974 in the United Kingdom when some parents claimed that after being vaccinated their children were diagnosed with neurological disorders, what they called “brain damage”.
In fact, it was a coincidence. The first signs a child has a genetic or other brain disorder occur about six months of age. The vaccine is given at two, three and four months, hence the incorrect assumption that the latter caused the former.
I was a student in the UK at the time. It was disastrous that the medical and epidemiological professions didn’t respond after the kids were shown on television with the claims of vaccine caused brain injury. The government paid compensation, reinforcing the false vaccination-brain damage association.
As a result, the rate of vaccination dropped from 81% to 31%, triggering the most horrendous epidemic of whooping cough. In one year, 21 children died and thousands were hospitalised with severe pneumonia and, sadly, brain damage from the infection.
The fear of the disease influenced parents to vaccinate again and immunisation rates went back up and disease incidence went down. But it’s a tragedy that it took an epidemic to prove that vaccination is protective. Several major studies also demonstrated clearly that whooping cough vaccines were protective against brain damage and not causing it.
The misguided belief that vaccination causes SIDS is also a case of myth by coincidence. The peak age of SIDS is four months, following vaccinations given from two to four months. The timing of the two events is associated in people’s minds, despite study after study showing no connection.
Instead, the research shows SIDS is linked strongly to lying babies on their face or having their head covered with bedding or toys. Other risk factors include smoking, not breastfeeding, overcrowding and over-heating.
The myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism is particularly naughty. It was started in 1998 by a scientist who published the claim in a widely-reported paper in The Lancet.
Again, vaccination rates fell precipitously and outbreaks of measles, mumps and rubella occurred. It was revealed the scientist had undeclared conflicts of interest and had engaged in scientific misconduct. The paper was retracted but the damage was done.
Such myths demonstrate why it’s absolutely crucial that medical researchers obtain solid laboratory data about new and combination vaccines, test them rigorously and obtain very good surveillance and monitoring data. The public must have confidence that the research is done and done well.
That’s why the Australian Academy of Science has just released a booklet – The Science of Immunisation: Questions and Answers – which explains the basics of vaccination and debunks common myths about vaccines and vaccination. It draws on expertise from a broad sector of the Australian science community, from virology and immunology to my field of epidemiology.
I urge all Australians to get the truth about the myths. Vaccination is a wonderful development in public health. It has prevented enormous suffering and millions of deaths worldwide. The benefits of vaccination outweigh the very small risk of unwanted side effects. Just ask the parents of 1956.