Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Immunization: From our Greatest Innovation to its Widespread Defamation

By Isabella HarnickPublished February 11, 2019

Vaccines currently prevent 2-3 million deaths a year; however, there are still many parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. How did something once considered to be our greatest innovation become something so feared?

The World Health Organization (WHO) released its “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019”  in an effort to address what they believe to be the main health challenges of 2019. Included on this list was “vaccine hesitancy” or “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.” Vaccines currently prevent  2-3 million deaths a year; however, there are still many parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. According to the WHO, this recent movement could be responsible for the recent 30% increase in measles cases globally. The need for policy solutions is further seen by the fact that if vaccination utilization improves globally, a further 1.5 million deaths could be thwarted.

While many like to believe that our world’s health problems are attributed to low-income countries, vaccination hesitancy is in the United States is just as much of a concern. New York City is currently in the midst of its worst measles outbreak in decades, and states like California and Minnesota faced a similar problem a few years back. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of unvaccinated children has increased fourfold since 2001 and more than 100,000 American infants have not received any vaccinations.

Vaccines have a long history. Edward Jenner is credited with creating the very first one: The smallpox vaccine was so crucial that Jenner decided not to patent it, resulting in easier dissemination and ultimately, eradication of the disease. Since then, science has brought forth solutions to additional debilitating and fatal diseases. However, somewhere along the way, we have lost sight of the fact that human life expectancy wouldn’t be nearly as high without the usage of vaccinations.

Concerns that the measles vaccine causes autism still persists in some circles, despite the fact that the idea has been widely debunked. Simply put, there is zero scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, yet they are still met with fear and complacency by many. The question remains if vaccinations are so crucial to public health, why haven’t these falsehoods already been put at bay? The arguments used by anti-vaxxers have not changed and are easily refutable. An effective pro-vaccine campaign would involve directly addressing their points over and over again. A London-based research group, The Vaccine Confidence Project, acts as an information surveillance system detecting websites early-on for anti-vaccine rumors and conspiracies. The United States would benefit from a similar fact-checking program—not to mention for other industries in the era of fake news—in order to ensure the public has statistically-supported information to base their decisions on.

It would also be in the best interest of the federal government to tighten restrictions on how much leeway states have on what qualifies families from opting-out of required vaccines. For example, California responded to their 2014 measles outbreak by disallowing nonmedical exemptions from mandatory vaccinations. To date, only Virginia and West Virginia limit exemptions to medical reasons, leaving vaccination dissemination often subject to parents’ own personal beliefs in the majority of states.

By making it harder for parents to opt-out, the government is doing the ultimate pro-vaccine campaign. If parents are disregarding the evidence, it’s time for the United States federal government and elsewhere to ensure the safety of the global population. It’s hard to miss the irony: Vaccine hesitancy appeared on The World Health Organization’s Ten Threats to Global Health in the 21st century yet vaccine utilization was listed as one of the top ten greatest public health achievements in the 20th century. It is time to implement public policy to make sure that fear does not prevent us from leveraging one of our greatest public health accomplishments.