It’s back. Eliminated in 1998, thanks to vaccination, measles is making a comeback.This highly-contagious disease has been spreading around the world and there are now dozens of cases in this country, mostly in Ontario and Quebec. At the same time as measles is thriving, opposition to vaccinations has been increasing in the wake of the pandemic.

In Canada, for instance, according to the Angus Reid Institute, opposition to mandatory childhood vaccination has increased from 24 to 38 percent since 2019. Seventeen percent of parents say they are “really against” vaccinating their kids, a four-fold increase from 2019. Half say that it should be the parents’ decision whether to vaccinate. (Only a third of those who do not have children agree.)

Opposition to vaccination has a long history. People attacked the earliest efforts to immunize against small pox, claiming disease was God’s will. We don’t hear much about God’s will from today’s opponents but the echoes of that kind of thinking persist. Today, opposition is fuelled by a variety of anti-vaxxers inspired by conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most notorious case in point is the infamous British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, (actually former doctor—he was struck off the British medical register).

Wakefield gained fame for his paper linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism, published in the esteemed medical journal the Lancet. The journal later retracted the article when it was discovered that Wakefield had fabricated research results, failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, and manipulated researchers and parents. His touted link between the measles vaccine and autism has been thoroughly discredited.

He eventually wound up in the U.S., embraced by Trump’s America, where he shares the anti-vax spotlight with such as presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. Wakefield’s shenanigans, including his exploitation of parents with autistic children, are brilliantly portrayed in the book The Doctor Who Fooled the World by Brian Deer.

Vaccines are, in fact, arguably the most successful public health intervention ever. They have saved more human lives than any other medical invention.

Prior to the mid-20th century the vast majority of deaths were caused by microbes—bacteria, amoebas, protozoans and viruses. Before the development of vaccines, diseases such as smallpox and polio killed millions. They have almost eliminated diseases that used to be mass killers and are a major reason that people today can expect to live into their 70s or 80s whereas throughout most of human history lifetimes averaged in the 30s.

Not that people lived to be 35 and dropped dead. If they survived childhood they might live good long lives. Childhood, however, was a challenge—almost one out every two children born never made it to 15 and communicable diseases were a major reason. Vaccines were indispensable in ending that reign of suffering.

The great majority of us recognize the achievement and the need for sustained effort to maintain it. And we respect the science. According to Angus Reid, over 70 percent of Canadians believe opposing child vaccination is irresponsible and feel that the anti-vaccination movement will lead to unnecessary illness and suffering.

Good news but the other 30 percent are nonetheless worrisome. In these days of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories, science often struggles to be heard, even when it is as solid as vaccination’s is. Some ignorance is tolerable. Ignorance that results in the suffering and death of children is not.

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