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Tracing the origins of the anti-vaccine movement

February 2, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
A measles outbreak has reached 14 states and infected more than 100 people. The disease had been considered eradicated in the U.S., but parents’ skepticism about the safety and usefulness of vaccines in recent years has made room for measles to spread. In a story for Retro Report, the NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green considers the roots of the vaccine debate.

GWEN IFILL: The measles outbreak in the United States has now infected more than 100 people in just over a month. There have been no deaths, but cases have been reported in 14 states, with the overwhelming number in California, where public health officials believe the current outbreak began, at Disneyland.

But just over a dozen years ago, measles was considered eradicated. Yet, last year, 600 cases were reported, many of them in unvaccinated Amish communities. Skepticism about the usefulness of vaccines has long been gathering steam in some circles.

For a look at what started it all, we bring you part of a piece by Retro Report, a nonprofit news organization whose documentaries are distributed by The New York Times.

The narrator is Zachary Green of NewsHour Weekend.

SETH MNOOKIN, Author, “The Panic Virus”: The current vaccine scares and controversies that we’re still dealing with today stem from a 1998 paper that appeared in The Lancet, a very respected medical journal published out of the U.K.

ZACHARY GREEN: The paper, written by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, claimed there might be a connection between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

SETH MNOOKIN: In his press conference, Andrew Wakefield stood up and said parents shouldn’t give their children the MMR vaccine, period, until we are able to get to the bottom of this.

ANDREW WAKEFIELD: The MMR vaccination, in combination, that I think that it should be suspended in favor of the single vaccines.

SETH MNOOKIN: The notion that you would take a 12-person case study and make claims about a population as a whole is ridiculous. This paper was historically bad, and what the media in the U.K. did was, they ran with that.

MAN: It’s a dilemma. You know, that’s a sensational story.

ZACHARY GREEN: Follow-up stories of hundreds of thousands of children could not find evidence that the MMR causes autism. And investigations into Wakefield’s original paper revealed he distorted the data and acted unethically.

SETH MNOOKIN: He has lost his medical license. The Lancet paper has been retracted.

But he had very effectively positioned himself as a martyr and, in some odd way, every piece of evident that comes out against Wakefield sort of solidifies his standing in the community that still pays attention to him.

ZACHARY GREEN: Another reason fears about vaccine safety persisted is that complicated science proved difficult for public health institutions to communicate, case in point, their response when concerns were raised over a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, which contains ethylmercury.

MAN: Children are getting mercury injected into their bodies with vaccines.

WOMAN: That’s right, mercury, a known neurotoxin.

ZACHARY GREEN: But ethylmercury in thimerosal is not the same as the toxic methylmercury, which is found in fish and accumulates in the body.

Nevertheless, the Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended thimerosal be removed, and their messaging backfired.

WOMAN: In 1999, health officials denied a link between vaccines and the autism epidemic, yet urged vaccine makers to take out the mercury, just to be safe.

SETH MNOOKIN: What the American Academy of Pediatrics said is, we are recommending this step so we can make safe vaccines even safer.

As a parent, if you tell me something is safe, I don’t think that’s on a sliding scale. I assume that if you say it’s safe, it is safe for my child. It’s not safe, safer or safest. There are almost two languages here. There’s the language of science and then there’s English.

And in the language of science, you have these signifiers, like “to the best of our knowledge, as far as we know.”

MAN: Based on the available scientific evidence.

SETH MNOOKIN: Because you can’t say anything with 100 percent — you can’t prove a negative. And so when scientists speak in their language, and the rest of us translate that into English, it sounds like they’re saying something very different than they’re saying.

GWEN IFILL: Just a clarification: When they talk about the MMR vaccine, they’re talking about muscles — muscles — they’re talking mumps, measles and rubella.