Vaccination is one of the most powerful tools of modern medicine.
In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the lives of over 2 million children were saved by vaccination.
The number of cases of vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) in the US has decreased by 98% since the pre-vaccination era.
The practice of inoculating healthy people against disease has a long history, dating back earlier than 1700, and coming into its modern vaccination form in 1796.
The earliest form of vaccination, called “variolation,” was practiced in China, Turkey, Africa, and India. Infectious material was taken from smallpox victims and introduced to healthy people. Only 1% of those who had been variolated against smallpox died of the disease upon contraction, compared to 30% of un-variolated people.
In 1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador, learned the practice of variolation in Constantinople and introduced it to European royalty to protect their heirs from smallpox.
Variolation was introduced to the United States by African slaves and used during the Boston smallpox outbreak of 1721.
In 1796, Edward Jenner famously injected an 8 year old boy with infectious material from a milk maid suffering from cow pox, a similar, but less dangerous disease. The term “vaccination” was inspired by this experiment, and borrows from the Latin “vaccinus” meaning “of or related to cows.”
There is growing danger from resurgence of VPDs in places they were once eliminated, and in places where VPDs are still present, progress in fighting them may grind to a halt or even reverse.
An unprecedented number of VPD outbreaks have been reported in countries including the UK and the United States.
The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation provides free vaccines to countries like India, where measles has not yet been eliminated, but faces resistance from Indian parents concerned about a link between vaccination and autism.
Patient fear may stifle the success of newly developed vaccines, such as the ebola vaccine, that have the potential to drastically improve health and save lives worldwide. The ebola outbreak in 2014-2015 claimed over 11,000 lives.
A preponderance of scientific evidence favors the safety of vaccinations, but dissent remains, and the unvaccinated population continues to grow.
The original research supporting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has been shown to be fraudulent. Exhaustive follow-up studies found no evidence for the link.
Still, even among our most educated, vaccination concerns exist. A study on Swiss physicians in 2004 reported that 8% of pediatricians and 10% of non-pediatricians either do not fully vaccinate their children, or follow an alternative vaccination schedule for their children. Their vaccination concerns mirrored those of non-medical parents, including worries regarding combination vaccines. Individuals with these concerns may, as a result, choose to postpone and/or split combination vaccines such as DTP and MMR.
Among healthcare workers in Canada, over one third believe that children receive too many vaccinations and that a healthy lifestyle can eliminate the need for vaccination.
As students of medicine, the results of studies of this kind are both surprising and unsettling. In order to further characterize how this controversy has entrenched itself in a modern society that is increasingly health-conscious, we will host a panel discussion of experts in areas of vaccine research, medical practice, and public health.
We plan to organize our discussion around elements that we believe are central to public discontent with regard to modern medicine and medical science.