Unless you really enjoy no-win arguments or get a high from being threatened with bodily harm, there are certain topics in 2020 that just aren’t worth bringing up with strangers, on your social media accounts, or even with extended family members (what happened to the good old days when family gatherings were mildly annoying rather than utterly insufferable?). Sadly, the United States has become increasingly polarized over issues of politics, religion, and science. It feels like the majority of Americans have lost the ability to view all sides of an issue or admit that many things in life are not “good” or “bad” but rather infinitely complex. Over the past 20 years, vaccines have become one of these contentious issues. CELEB explores why they’ve become controversial and what it could mean for the Covid-19 pandemic recovery.

The First Vaccine

British physician Edward Jenner is credited with being the creator of the first successful vaccine. He deliberately infected his patients with cowpox virus, which is closely related to smallpox but less dangerous. The cowpox inoculation kept the person from contracting smallpox. Jenner’s vaccine, first used in 1796, saved millions of lives in the years that followed. The deadly virus was totally eradicated by 1979.

Evolution of Vaccines

One century after the first smallpox vaccine, Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine was developed in 1885. As science advanced, more vaccines followed. In 1955, the polio vaccine was licensed and the world “celebrated and Jonas Salk, its inventor, became an overnight hero.” By the 1960’s, vaccines were recommended for 8 major diseases, including smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella. Today, the CDC recommends vaccination against 14 diseases.

MMR Vaccine and False Autism Link Claim

Within the last few decades, the diagnoses for certain disorders and diseases have steadily increased. Sadly, children haven’t been spared from this frightening health trend. Autism diagnoses, allergies, juvenile cancer rates, and autoimmune diseases are all on the rise. Some parents began to wonder if there was a link between these health issues and the increase in vaccines. In some cases, parents claim that their children were perfectly fine and developmentally on track but regressed or developed certain disorders or diseases shortly after receiving routine vaccinations. Then, in 1998 a British physician named Andrew Wakefield rocked the medical world when he published a small study in the medical journal the Lancet that seemingly linked the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to autism.

The publication of his study, “led to a public health scare that saw uptake of the vaccine dip below 80%. The Lancet later repudiated the paper, after it emerged that Dr. Wakefield had extensive financial ties to lawyers and families who were pursuing the manufacturers of the vaccine in the courts and that most of his research participants were litigants.” Furthermore, it was discovered that Wakefield’s study was flawed on several levels and soon “epidemiological studies were conducted and published, refuting the posited link between MMR vaccination and autism.” Wakefield was eventually stripped of his medical license but the damage was already done. Many worried parents continued to refuse the MMR vaccine and unfortunately measles and mumps have made a resurgence in the past 20 years.

Anti-Vaccination Movement

Often referred to as “anti-vaxxers” (a term many in the movement despise) opponents of vaccines each have their own reasons for refusing to be vaccinated or have their children receive vaccinations. Those in the movement resent being pressured to put something into their bodies that they don’t agree with. Parents resent that vaccines are mandated for any child entering school. Others argue that because vaccines contain certain unnatural ingredients (such as the mercury-containing compound thimerosal, MSG, animal cell strains) that are injected directly into the muscle tissue, they will inevitably cause adverse health effects, even if these aren’t apparent until years later. Some also believe that repeatedly provoking an immune response with a man-made injection later causes the immune system to overact (allergies) or attack it’s own healthy cells (autoimmune disease).

Vaccine opponents also point out that vaccines have directly caused harm, and sometimes (though rarely) death, to certain individuals and even the CDC and vaccine manufacturers directly state these warnings. For example, the CDC’s website reads, “Studies have shown a small increased risk for febrile seizures during the 5 to 12 days after a child has received their first vaccination with the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.” Also, “The National Academy of Medicine conducted a scientific review…in 2003 and found that people who received the 1976 swine flu vaccine had an increased risk for developing GBS [Guillain-Barré syndrome]. There are other examples of vaccines that were later taken off the market due to a certain percentage of people developing serious side effects. Vaccine opponents feel it is their right to make their own medical decisions and do not want to be injected with something that they feel could be detrimental to their health or the health of their children. And lastly, some vaccine opponents argue that most of the research done on vaccine safety is done by the vaccine manufacturers and that the CDC and FDA are under the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

Vaccine Proponents

Vaccine advocates worry that harmful and deadly diseases will make a resurgence if more people continue to refuse vaccination for themselves and their children. Per Vox, “There is a concept in science called ‘herd immunity,’ which refers to the idea that a lot of people need to get a given vaccine, whether it’s for the flu or measles, to stop a disease from spreading. Vaccinated people essentially act as barriers to outbreaks, since diseases can’t pass through them and infect others. This barrier helps protect some of the most vulnerable populations: infants under 12 months of age, who can’t get vaccinated and are more susceptible to infection; the elderly, who have a higher risk of death if they contract vaccine-treatable illnesses; and people with compromised immune systems, who can’t get vaccines and are more likely to die from the diseases they protect against.”

Vaccine proponents also believe that vaccines are very safe overall and the risk of being harmed from a preventable disease is greater than the risk of a possible vaccine side effect. The CDC’s website states that the vaccine licensing process can take more than 10 years and requires three phases of clinical trials. Pro-vaccine scientists and doctors maintain that there is no conclusive research to show that vaccines cause any long-term health issues in healthy children and adults. And while they acknowledge that children are receiving more vaccines today, “the vaccines used in the current immunization schedule actually have fewer antigens (inactivated or dead viruses and bacteria, altered bacterial toxins, or altered bacterial toxins that cause disease and infection) because of developments in vaccine technology. From 1980 to 2000, the immunization schedule’s total number of antigens decreased by approximately 96 percent.” Vaccine proponents also say that the “unnatural” ingredients that vaccines contain are minuscule in amount and don’t pose a threat to health. They also point out that that thimerosal is no longer used in any vaccinations given to children.

Celebrity Backlash

Celebrities who have come out as anti-vaccine or revealed that they believe in a delayed vaccine schedule have faced massive criticism and backlash. Jenny McCarthy has been outspoken about her belief that her son’s autism was caused by the MMR vaccine. She has since said that she is not an “anti-vaxxer” but does want more independent research done on how to make vaccines safer. You can read her interview with Frontline here. Other celebrities who have been vocal about being either anti-vaccine or simply vaccine cautious include Kristin Cavallari, Robert DeNiro, Jessica Biel, Jim Carrey, Kat Von D, and Selma Blair.

Covid-19 Vaccine

Cases of Covid-19 are rising exponentially in the US and thousands are dying each day. Finally, a glimmer of hope has appeared as vaccines for the virus are beginning to be distributed. However various polls have reported that many Americans, somewhere around 30%, say they will not take the vaccine. While a percentage of these people may be vaccine opponents, many are pro-vaccination but worry that the Covid vaccine was developed and approved too quickly and that only time will tell if it has any long-term health effects. Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that we could see an end to the pandemic if a certain percentage of the population gets vaccinated. Per Yahoo! News, “Let’s say we get 75 percent, 80 percent of the population vaccinated. If we do that, if we do it efficiently enough over the second quarter of 2021, by the time we get to the end of the summer, i.e., the third quarter, we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society that … we can approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before.”