The Dangers of Politicizing Vaccines: Part I

In Part One of this two-part series, Erin Loney researches the importance of vaccinations and the origins of the anti-vaccine movement as it pertains to Donald Trump’s potential commission on vaccines and scientific integrity. 


On January 10, 2017, President-elect Donald Trump met with Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney and well-known critic of vaccines. After their private appointmen, Kennedy announced to the press that Trump had asked him to lead a commission on vaccines. According to Kennedy, who is neither a scientist, nor physician, his responsibilities would include: ensuring “scientific integrity in the vaccine process for efficacy and safety effects”. He informed the media that, “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies, and he has questions about it.” Though Trump aides have said that the decision to create this committee is not final, the meeting and alleged appointment alarmed the medical and scientific community. The issue does not lie solely in Kennedy’s lack of expertise, but rather in that he is already a proponent for the argument against vaccines.


Vaccines are among the most important medical advances in history. In the United States, vaccination rates are over  90 per cent for most major diseases, including polio, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella. The push for vaccine laws began in the late 1960s after a measles outbreak, and by the early 1980s, all states had adopted immunization laws. Efforts to boost immunization levels have been supported by all recent Presidents, and the 90 per cent goal set in 1991 was achieved within a decade.


If there were no measles vaccination, there would be at least four million cases of measles in the United States annually, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Before there was a diphtheria vaccine, the number of deceased reached more than 15,000 in one year. Between 1964 and 1965, over 12 million Americans caught rubella; 2,000 babies died and there were 11,000 related miscarriages. The vast majority of doctors, scientists, and major organizations like The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) support the use of vaccines.


Since the 1990s, skepticism surrounding the use of vaccines, and vaccine refusal have been trends that are largely attributed to an infamous article published in 1998 in the U.K. journal The Lancet. The author of the article, Andrew Wakefield, argued that there was a supposed link between the measles vaccine and autism. Following the publication, the measles vaccination rates in England and Scotland dropped by approximately 12 per cent in less than five years. The Lancet later retracted the paper after determining that it was fraudulent and finding instances of unethical behaviour during the research. Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine and was rejected from the medical and scientific community. Since the article was published, substantial research has been conducted, and every relevant medical and scientific organization has confirmed that vaccines are safe and not linked to autism in any way. Nevertheless, it took eight years for immunization levels to recover in these regions.


When clusters of so-called anti-vaxxers live in close proximity, they threaten what’s known as “herd immunity,” which indirectly protects everyone, whether immunized or not, from infection and disease when a large percentage of the population is immunized. If the majority is vaccinated, the likelihood of an unvaccinated person encountering a contagious disease is decreased. The measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2015, which affected 70 people, was almost entirely credited to vaccine refusal. Herd immunity also protects those that are too young to receive vaccinations, and those with weakened immune systems and cancer when they are distributed throughout the immunized population. Every American state allows vaccination exemptions for children with medical conditions like leukemia or immune disorders. These vulnerable groups rely on herd immunity for protection, and when parents refuse vaccines for their children based on personal choice, herd immunity is threatened. California in 2010 saw the highest number of whooping cough cases since the 1940s when the vaccine was initially released. The outbreak resulted in the deaths of 10 infants, too young to be vaccinated.


The fundamental fact is that a causal relationship between autism and vaccines has never been found. Though autism cases have gone up in recent years, epidemiologists attribute the rise to an improvement in diagnoses and an increase in symptoms that are included in the autism spectrum. Many major studies have found that groups of unvaccinated children develop autism at the same rate as groups of vaccinated children. Even if vaccines and autism were linked, choosing not to vaccinate your child out of fear of autism makes them and others susceptible to life-threatening diseases with high mortality rates.


Indeed, vaccinating children can cause side effects, but the more common short-term side effects are fever, rash, redness and swelling at the injection site. More serious side effects like allergic reactions only occur roughly once in one million doses. In short, the benefits are immeasurable, and the ill effects are marginal.


A common argument against vaccines is that they contain toxins in dangerous levels, like mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde and antifreeze. In a word: no. Vaccines (excluding the flu shot) have not contained thimerosal, the compound containing mercury since 2001. Regardless, it has been found that the levels of mercury previously used in vaccines are harmless, and did not accumulate in the body. Vaccines do contain aluminum salts, which make the vaccine more effective and enhance immune response. However, the amount of aluminum in vaccines is less than infants receive through breast milk or formula. Trace amounts of formaldehyde may be found, but the amount is smaller than what our bodies produce naturally. There is no antifreeze whatsoever in vaccines, just one harmless component, which is what leads to the assumption.


Some anti-vaxxers argue that “Big Pharma” makes a profit off vaccinations, and they do, just like car companies make a profit off airbags. The vaccine industry only became profitable in recent years when demand in developing countries increased. Pediatricians and doctors, on the other hand, often lose money on vaccine administration.


Return at 4:00 this afternoon for Part Two, which will analyze Trump’s stance on vaccines and the impact it could have on public health.


Photo: Infant Vaccination (2015), by Amanda Mills via Pixnio. Public Domain (CC0).

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Erin Loney

About Erin Loney

Erin is a contributor and former Program Editor for Expanding Community at NATO Association of Canada. She recently graduated with an Honours BSocSc in International Development and Globalization, with a minor in Political Science from the University of Ottawa. Key areas of study included international trade and development, Canadian foreign policy, economics of globalization, and research methods. Along with these topics, Erin’s personal areas of interest include environmental policy, public diplomacy, and human rights. In addition to her work at NAOC, Erin writes, edits, and contributes to social media management for an Ottawa tech start-up. She plans to pursue further studies and a career in International Affairs and Development. Erin has traveled extensively and is passionate about studying other cultures and areas of the world. She hopes to live abroad and work with an international or multilateral organization in the future. Erin can be reached at