Illustration: Leah Zahorujko/InDaily
It feels ridiculous to have to be writing about this in 2018, but here we are. In the same year that we managed to land yet another spacecraft onto Mars, it seems we are going backwards rather than forwards in some areas. Nothing is more symptomatic of this than the anti-vaccination movement that, in the most cringeworthy and alarming of ways, is flourishing around the world.
The measles epidemic in Europe is now at an eight-year high, and believe it or not, it has direct links to another aspect that has come to define the world in 2018 – fake news and populism.
Quick History Lesson
In 1998, a dodgy doctor called Andrew Wakefield published a paper in acclaimed medical journal The Lancet which linked the Mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Wakefield made this his crusade, and the study gained ground to the point that a large number of terrified parents chose to forego vaccinating their children.
It would later transpire that this study had no scientific basis and Wakefield had conspired with a colleague to profit from marketing “kits for diagnosing patients with autism”. Essentially, it was a fraudulent money-making scheme with repercussions that would still be felt 20 years later.
Wakefield has since been struck off the UK Medical Register, though in reality he should probably be in prison for life because of the incredible damage he has caused. Looks like fake news isn’t just a recent phenomenon, and we are still dealing with the aftermath of this particular example.
Fast-forward to the year of our Lord, 2018
This is where it gets interesting, and scary.
Anti-vaccine movements, dubbed anti-vaxxers, have grown over the past two decades, and we are now feeling the repercussions. In the first six months of 2018, more than 41,000 cases of measles were reported in Europe. The Ukraine alone had 23,000 cases. France, Italy and Greece reported well over 1,000 cases each. In the US, measles outbreaks have been reported in 21 states.
How does a lie that was floated twenty years ago and discredited less than five years later still have an effect to this day?
Enter the populists and the reach of social media. Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Beppe Grillo and Marine Le Pen have all come out in support of anti-vaccination. Trump has tweeted about the false vaccine-autism link for years. In Italy, Matteo Salvini and Beppe Grillo, both wielding a lot of influence and growing support, have made similar claims. Earlier this year, vaccine requirements in Italy were removed for the first time. And the number of measles cases keeps rising – 5,000 cases in Italy this year alone.
It seems like an odd, specific cause to rally for, and yet it makes sense if you want to win an election these days. Populists capitalise on the emotions of people to win influence; anti-establishment anger, fear, suspicion of authority, change for the sake of change. Anti-vaxxers can relate to these feelings, which makes them the perfect demographic to target if you are a politician.
Convey a message effectively and it can trump the very basics of logic and science. Because make no mistake, what is happening here is the skepticism of hard science.
It’s not just far-right supporters who are joining the anti-vaxxers either. It is also the radical left, who advocate against pesticides (fair, but within reason) and who dismiss vaccinations as some big-pharma conspiracy to have us injected with drugs.
If the above weren’t grim enough, the movement is now spilling over to other diseases. Polio is on the rise, tetanus too. Both easily preventable through inoculations at a young age.
People need to start realising that these are deadly diseases
Measles and tetanus can kill you. Polio will leave you disabled. But they are both preventable. Fun fact – vaccines have saved more lives than any public health initiative, save for clean water.
Malta is slowly but surely feeling the repercussions of the above. In November this year, the Superintendent of Health Dr Charmaine Gauci made it a point to stress for parents to vaccinate their children. Measles are on the rise in Malta, with five new cases this year. That is five too many.
To the parents out there: go vaccinate your children if you haven’t done so already.