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Vaccines need a shot in the arm

With nearly four times as many cases of measles in Australia reported in the first few weeks of 2011 alone, compared to all of 2005, trust in a decade-old fraudulent anti-vaccine report by some parents is risking everyone’s health.

In 1998, a highly respected British medical journal, the Lancet, published a study that linked the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine to regressive autism.

Over the next 12 years the report and its author Dr Andrew Wakefield became a thorn in the side of immunologists around the world who failed to replicate the findings, and plagued the minds of millions of parents who vaccinated their children in good faith and whose children later developed autism. (In 2005, there were almost 12,000 children aged between 6 and 12 who were known to Centrelink as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder.)

In January the Wakefield report was denounced as fraudulent after investigations by Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer uncovered the data used in the study was falsified. Neither the research records nor parental recollection matched the published Lancet study.

CQUniversity immunologist Dr John McGrath says it appears that Wakefield used the fraudulent study to aid a legal claim against the MMR vaccine manufacturers.

“It has been reported that two years before the paper was published Wakefield was hired by a solicitor to help launch a speculative lawsuit against drug companies that manufactured the MMR vaccine. He was paid behind the scenes to find a new syndrome of bowel and brain disease caused by the vaccine. Alarm bells should have gone off, when they were making the claims even before any of the 12 children identified in the report had been studied.”

Numerous studies in the US, Great Britain and Denmark have never supported the association between the MMR vaccine and autism, says McGrath.

“Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have received measles vaccines without developing behavioural problems since the mid-1960s. Also, when Japan switched from the combination MMR to a single measles vaccine there was no reduction in autism rates.”

Despite the huge amount of evidence that contradicted Wakefield’s claims, the study remained in the public domain for about 12 years. McGrath believes the damage to the reputation of vaccines, particularly to the MMR vaccine, has been immense. He says since the study, parents had begun to question the safety of vaccines and anti-vaccine groups have begun to emerge, some radically targeting new parents via online websites.

“It was really sad that the study led to parents having a distrust of vaccines and how good they actually are as a health tool to prevent diseases in their precious children.”

A number of reports that children were being diagnosed with autism shortly after being vaccinated with MMR only fuelled anti-vaccine campaigns.

However, McGrath believes the timing was purely coincidental. MMR is given during the second year of life, and according to Autism Spectrum Australia’s head researcher Dr Trevor Clark, this about the time when autism first manifests itself. “Autism often appears in children from the age of two years but can also be diagnosed as early as 12 months.”

Even before the retraction of the Lancet report, researchers like Clark, had dismissed the link between the vaccine and autism. “There has been a huge increase in autism research in the past decade, however the Lancet report had little to do with this. Initially, there was research into the link, but autism research has really focused on genetics.”

Although cases of childhood illnesses such as measles are still low, immunologists like McGrath are concerned about the impact of the drop in immunisation rates, saying we are still to face the full effects. Since the introduction of the MMR vaccine, cases of measles, mumps and rubella have all but been eradicated in western societies.

In 1941 there were more than 890,000 cases of measles in the US and by 1997 this had been reduced to 135 cases. Mumps dropped from over 150,000 cases to just 612, while rubella dropped from over 57,000 to 161. Similar rates were found in Australia.

According to a National Communicable Diseases report, Australia had just 10 reported cases of measles in 2005, however recent data from the organisation revealed Australia has had 43 cases in the first two months of 2011.

This number is also tipped to rise considerably by the end of the year according to McGrath, who believes the higher than normal cases of measles could be attributed to the Wakefield report and people’s general complacency.

“Vaccines have led to the virtual eradication of some terrible infectious diseases including polio, smallpox, tetanus, diptheria and whooping cough, and have decimated rates of others like meningitis and pneumonia in vaccinated populations. But with this enormous success, people are becoming complacent with vaccinations and now we are seeing some diseases making a comeback.”

Queensland Health was quick to respond to one of the latest cases of measles whereby two children contracted the infection overseas and later presented with the condition in Brisbane.
According to Queensland Health, measles is spread by tiny droplets through coughing and sneezing. The virus can last for several hours in the environment. Initial symptoms include fever, lethargy, runny nose, moist cough and sore and red eyes, followed a few days later by a blotchy red rash.

McGrath believes to prevent major outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles we need to establish a ‘herd immunity’. “A herd immunity is achieved when about 95 per cent of the population is vaccinated. This means that even if you have not been vaccinated yourself, you can be protected because the virus or the bacteria can’t live in a population where high numbers of people are vaccinated and therefore it can’t move around and spread.”

While governments and health organisations may hope for 100 per cent of the population to be immunised, McGrath believes there will always be those who will have side effects to some vaccines and will not be fully immunised.

“There are people that do have reactions to vaccines and that is not something you can predict or prevent. However if most of the population is vaccinated, the herd immunity effect will protect those that can’t be vaccinated due to health or religious reasons.”

McGrath says vaccines provide our bodies with the right tools to prevent infection. He says they work by safely training the body to recognise specific infectious microbes or toxins and target them for immediate neutralisation before too much damage can be done.

Drawing on a crime-show type analogy, McGrath says vaccines resemble police searching for their suspect.

“The boys in blue will be infinitely more effective at their job if they have been given a description of the suspect. The same goes for vaccinations and infectious diseases. Vaccination is like giving the body’s police force – the immune system – a description of the ‘wanted’ microbe. The ID kit given to the body is a safe fake infection that triggers the immune system to memorise precisely what it was exposed to. This means that any future attempt by that same microbe will be quickly and effectively neutralised by a pre-prepared immune system.”

McGrath says the best way to protect yourself from some of the world’s most debilitating and deadly diseases is to keep your immunisations up to date. The Australian government has for many years taken a very proactive stance to immunisation, offering a national immunisation program, funding free vaccinations and administering the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register.

Dr John McGrath is a chief immunologist with CQUniversity’s Capricornia Centre for Mucosal Immunology. His current work involves development of a vaccine for middle ear infection. He has also worked on the development of vaccines for cancer and chronic bronchitis and was part of the team which developed and tested an HIV vaccine.


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