Science & Tech, World

Vaccines, Autism & Mercury: Are People Abandoning Science?

Vaccines are certainly one of the brightest medical achievements and part of the reason why we have a higher life expectancy and child survival rates today.

The main advantage of getting vaccinated: you don’t catch a potentially deadly disease. And yet, more and more parents opt out of vaccinating their children, out of fear that vaccines cause autism.

In 1796, Edward Jenner came up with the first successful vaccine. He noticed that milkmaids who had previously contracted cowpox were immune to smallpox. This led him to the conclusion, that purposeful infection with cowpox, a non-lethal disease, can protect an individual from catching smallpox, which was deadly. Still, some people did not want to be vaccinated, because they thought they would become cows – a situation that is awfully similar to today’s common dilemma: should I vaccinate my child or not?

Vaccines and Autism: A Fear Fueled by Misinformation

Many parents have had the unfortunate experience of finding out, that their child had autism right after the vaccination. So it is normal for them to ask questions and wonder, whether the vaccine may have caused the child’s mental condition.

The correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism wasn’t concrete until 1998, when a British doctor called Andrew Wakefield published a research paper, supporting claims that the vaccine caused inflammation of the intestines and autism. This caused a lot of parents in the UK to skip the MMR vaccine.

In 2010, it was found that Wakefield manipulated the data to suit his personal beliefs and produced a fraudulent paper, so he was stripped of his medical license and reputation in the medical community. Despite this, there are still people who believe him and praise his work.

This gave way to the rise of anti-vaccination groups in the USA. Communities of parents and like-minded individuals, who have taken it upon themselves to educate the public about the dangers of a mysterious substance called – you guessed it – mercury!

What’s So Scary About Mercury?

Thimerosal is a compound used in vials of vaccines that contain more than one dose. Its purpose is to stop bacteria and fungi from spreading in the vials, which can happen when the vaccine is extracted from the vial with a syringe. A lot of people panic when they hear that thimerosal contains ethylmercury since they’ve heard that mercury is a toxic substance.

Thimerosal in vaccines is very safe. At worst, it can cause a temporary swelling at the spot where the vaccine was injected. So far, no one has been able to prove that thimerosal causes autism scientifically.

What has been scientifically proven multiple times is that the MMR vaccine has no relation to autism. Population based studies conducted in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland all point to the same conclusion. Children who received vaccines containing thimerosal and those who received vaccines without the substance had the same autism rates. In Japan, the MMR vaccine was administered into three separate shots because people were concerned that autism was caused by administering three vaccines at once. This change didn’t decrease the rates of autism though. It increased it.

The reason why people are so quick to connect autism and the MMR vaccine is the fact that children receive the vaccine at an age where autism starts to emerge. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the one caused the other.

Risks and Consequences

The real risks of getting vaccinated include swelling that lasts from one hour to one day. A tiny portion of the treated people can have an allergic reaction to some of the components in the vaccine, and an even smaller portion can experience a severe reaction. Some websites link more serious risks, with a disclaimer that they happen so rarely, that there is no way to prove whether they are caused by a vaccine or not.

Choosing not to vaccinate your child has heavier consequences than a mild swelling. Many parents argue that there is no need to protect children against some diseases, like polio, because we haven’t seen them in decades. We haven’t seen polio in decades precisely because of that – vaccination. Skipping vaccination leaves your child vulnerable to these diseases, which are still very present in other parts of the world. Your child doesn’t live in a glass bubble where no germ can reach them.

Furthermore, immunizing your child means maintaining what’s called ‘herd immunity’. The more people are vaccinated against a disease, the smaller the likelihood of this disease to spread. Some children are living with health conditions and are too weak to receive a vaccine, so they depend on healthy children receiving their regular vaccines.

The ‘Personal Belief’ Exemption

In some US states, like California, it’s legal to opt out of vaccinating your children based on your personal belief. All you need to do is sign a piece of paper. In the 21st Century, vaccination shouldn’t be forceful. We have all this information that’s available to you, and yet a significant portion of us choose to close their eyes from scientific facts and give in to sensationalist, unfounded, ‘personal beliefs’ of celebrities and public figures.

Parents are allowed to fight for what’s best for their children. However, they owe it to their children to first find out what the best is.

About Martina Blazheska

Martina is a mechanical engineering student from Skopje, Macedonia. When she’s not drowning in homework, she likes to write articles. Her favorite things to write about are feminism, social justice, science, ecology and travel. Martina is fascinated with the influence of social media and hopes that her words can make a difference, no matter how big or small.

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