The measles outbreak in the hipster Melbourne suburb of Brunswick is worsening, with parents fearful of sending their children to parks or childcare centres. Many point the finger at anti-vaxxers, or parents who refuse to vaccinate their children based on unfounded health fears associated with vaccines. But how did the number of parents rejecting the best scientific advice as to what is best for their children reach critical mass?

Before we get to that point, it’s probably a good idea to go back and look at how influential vaccines were before the anti-vax movement found its voice.

In 1953, the first polio vaccine came in to use. The vaccine has been lauded as crucial in nearly eradicating polio worldwide today. An estimated 350,000 cases across 125 countries in 1988 has fallen to just 250 cases across five countries in 2012. Australia had its last case of polio in 2007.  

The first MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was created in 1963, and it was introduced into Australia in 1968. On March 20, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that measles had been eliminated in Australia. But it can still be brought into the country — and if a significant enough portion of the population are not vaccinated against it, it can take hold here. 

Before the vaccine, is it estimated that in the United States, 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalised, and 4000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles every year. But in 2000, it was announced the US had eliminated measles completely.

In spite of all of this, in 1994 the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) was born. Despite what its name suggests, the AVN was created as an anti-vaccination lobby group and believes “the choice to vaccinate is often made without access to all of the facts” and wants “to ensure that vaccinations are never made compulsory for Australian children”.

Today, the group is now referred to as the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network after the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading ordered the group to change its name or be de-registered. 

Its foundation can be linked to a push by the federal government in the 1990s to boost immunisation rates among children after they had fallen as low as 53%.

Luckily for the anti-vax movement, and unluckily for everybody else, four years later, in 1998, a fraudulent paper was published in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues linking the MMR vaccine to autism. At the time, the study attracted lots of media attraction, and vaccination rates dropped sharply around the world. 

In years to come, the General Medical Council, an independent regulator for doctors in the UK, found Wakefield had been paid by a law board to find evidence supporting a litigation case by parents who believed that the vaccine had harmed their children. The editor of The Lancet said he never would have published the article if he had known about Wakefield’s “fatal conflict of interest”.

In addition to this, millions of dollars and hours of time were spent in the coming years trying to re-educate the public about the safety of vaccines. In 2001, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed all of the data linking the MMR vaccine to autism to date and concluded there was no association between the two and closed the case.

In February of 2010, 12 years after it was first published, The Lancet completely retracted Wakefield’s study, admitting that several elements in the paper were incorrect. In May of the same year, the GMC pulled Dr. Wakefield’s licence to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.

But for the anti-vax movement, the seed was planted, and they have vigorously dismissed contradicting studies ever since.

In 1999, only 73.63% of children between 24 and 27 months were fully immunised in Australia, the lowest level of immunisation in the past 17 years.

It is organisations like Generation Rescue and Age of Austism, along with specific anti-vaccination lobby groups that have wielded the most influence in the anti-vax movement in the last few years. Together, groups like these have wanted to be recognised as something that “gives voice to those who believe autism is an environmentally induced illness” and have written extensively on the supposed link between autism and vaccinations.

Generation Rescue, with former Playboy Playmate and anti-vax activist Jenny McCarthy at the helm, preaches a steadfastly anti-vax message.

Despite no scientific background, McCarthy has been the face of the anti-vax movement since releasing her first book, Louder than Words: A mother’s Journey in Healing Autism and famously telling Frontline in 2015 she had been able to diagnose her own son with autism via Google

The effects of Wakefield’s study continued to be felt worldwide decades later. In 2009, the Health Protection Agency in the United Kingdom attributed a large measles outbreak in 2008 and 2009 to a concurrent drop in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine.

Around the same time, Queensland had a total of 31 cases of measles notified in the first half of 2009. Of these, 25 cases in a Sunshine Coast high school were linked to an imported case from India. None of the 25 infected children had been vaccinated at the time of exposure. 

Immunisation rates in Australia for children between 12 and 15 months have been over 90% since 2001. But rates for those between 24 and 27 months have fallen to 89%, despite the governments “no jab, no play, no pay” policy.

Why is there such a backlash against a vaccine that has been around for decades and has saved hundreds of thousands of lives? Social media and unverified speculation on the internet have played a big role in the anti-vax movement. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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