Does our society have room for discussion about vaccinations?

Vaccinations for diseases is a subject that regularly triggers intense arguments. Parents want to be aware of their children‘s health and try to take well-informed decisions regarding their health. But what makes a decision well-informed?

Parents that take the decision not to get their kids vaccinated can destroy this protective bubble by breaking down the herd immunity.

A vaccination is an immunisation supposed to avert serious contagious disease. These diseases claimed a lot of lives in the past, leaving the human race helpless against these viruses: A good example of such a virus is smallpox, which tormented men for several hundred years.

Vaccines are produced from weak viruses or bacteria or contain substances found in germs. In the densely populated areas that a big portion of the human race lives in today, one very important factor is that it‘s impossible to contain these epidemics unless the majority of the population gets vaccinated. A so-called herd immunity is used to stop the disease from spreading, by vaccinating the majority of people it can‘t spread, even though some people aren‘t vaccinated. There‘s always some individuals who either don‘t have the age or the health to get vaccinated but by vaccinating the majority of the people we are essentially forming a protective bubble around these people. Parents that take the decision not to get their kids vaccinated can destroy this protective bubble by breaking down the herd immunity.

In a reply from disease prevention found on the website of Iceland‘s surgeon general, posted in march 2015, it’ stated that only 2% of children in Iceland born on the years 1995–2002 weren‘t vaccinated and 95% of Icelanders are in favour of the vaccination of children. Parents of course want to make decisions in their children‘s favour and not play around with something as important as their health. Nowadays there‘s an incredible stream of information that allows propaganda to reach people‘s ears more easily. Again and again the claim vaccinations are harmful to children comes up in discussions of the subject. But does this propaganda about vaccinations being harmful to children suffocate objective discussion about vaccinations?

If numbers about contagious diseases and viruses are reviewed it‘s undeniable that vaccinations have helped the public‘s health tremendously, as with the case of smallpox which was finally eroded in 1980. Still there have always been voices of criticism proclaiming vaccinations are a systematic threat to the health of children. These voices have probably never had easier access to the minds of parents then on these times of extreme flow of information.

One of the most longlived examples of propaganda is the phony study the British doctor Andrew Wakefield made in the 90s, where he declared vaccinations against e.g. measles, caused autism in children. In 2004, after an American investigative journalist revealed information about financial gains of some individuals related to the case, most of Wakefield’s informants drew back their information and the study was deemed invalid. Wakefield lost his doctor‘s licence following this chain of events.

Regardless of all this, the myth of relation between vaccinations and autism seems to be longstanding. After the subject of vaccinations of children was brought up last fall, a woman that didn‘t want her children vaccinated was interviewed in Stöð 2‘s evening news. The interview was headlined “Refuses to vaccinate her children” and judging by the reporter’s questions and the news story’s setup this decision wasn’t thought of as very normal.

In the comment’s section below you can clearly see the negative reaction to the woman’s decision. The woman says she had seen changes in her first child after a vaccine and didn’t want to take the risk with her other children. An interesting thing about that story is that it’s revealed that Vísir spoke to a number of people that didn’t want to admit in public that they don’t vaccinate their children, in fear of criticism.

Although decisions of parents not to vaccinate their children angers some members of our society it’s important to give room for level-headed and objective discussion about the subject, based on facts. Especially to keep the discussion on a scholarly note, so individuals with false studies or other forms of pseudo-science don’t get a chance to get into the minds of parents who are scared for their children’s safety.

All studies that have been made on the subject show no correlation between autism and vaccinations against measles, rubella or mumps, as has been declared. When diseases like smallpox and measles disappear from the eyes of the public because of vaccinations there’s a danger people forget how dangerous they are and how common infections were before the time of vaccinations.

In the 19th century around 2000 people died from measles in Iceland but today the disease has mostly been eroded, with vaccinations. Another disease that caused Icelanders distress in the past was the already mentioned smallpox which is a highly contagious disease children are now vaccinated for.

The newest example of similar propaganda in Iceland was the visit of the American doctor Suzanne Humphries which caused a lot of fuss in The University of Iceland. Humphries held a presentation for an organization that calls itself “Health Freedom” which state on their website that they try to secure access for everyone to health care, information, treatments and products people think of as useful in medical purposes. Suzanne’s visit received a lot of attention because the presentation was held in The University of Iceland. The employees of the university didn’t think it appropriate that the university connected it’s name to such a presentation of propaganda and allow Humphries to sell her book there.

On the website of the anti-faith website Vantrú there’s a coverage of Humphries, who is active in American movements fighting against vaccines and has, among other things, released the book The History of Vaccinations with Roman Bystrianyk. The book has now been translated into Icelandic, for the occasion of Humphries’ visit. She uses propaganda where she calls vaccinations unnatural and says the body has the ability to produce all it’s natural defences by itself. In an interview, that’s published on Youtube in the education category, she declares that vaccinations have never been safe and it’s actually impossible for medical science to make “safe vaccinations.”

Suzanne says the increased allergies of children in modern times are caused by the immune system gradually getting worse, and that it’s been happening for a long time. In Vantrú’s website it also says that Suzanne doubts the threat measles cause to human lives because of the low mortality rate of the disease. Measles is one of the most contagious viral disease that exists but it’s dangers mainly come from the side effects the disease can cause. In the 19th century around 2000 people died from measles in Iceland but today the disease has mostly been eroded, with vaccinations.

Another disease that caused Icelanders distress in the past was the already mentioned smallpox which is a highly contagious disease children are now vaccinated for. The disease killed around a third of all infected individuals and is thought to have lived in humans through centuries. Smallpox raged on Iceland in the years 1707–1709, causing around 16–18 thousand deaths in these years. That’s obviously a huge number for the tiny Icelandic nation. Then in 1980 it was announced at a World Health Organization meeting that smallpox had been eroded by vaccinations.

Is it possible that the diminishing visibility of certain viral diseases is the reason for parents choosing not to vaccinate their children? Or is it the massive amount of information available? Another reason could be the people’s diminishing trust in the government. All these factors are worth looking into and more than anything increase the necessity of keeping the discussion of children’s vaccinations alive.

Society’s responsibility is also important when it comes to vaccinations that have the goal of eroding dangerous diseases. For people like Humphries and Wakefield not to have direct access into the minds and hearts of fearful parents, the discussion of vaccines has to be open for criticism. That doesn’t mean all critical voices should be closed off but that certain individual’s interests should be visible to everyone. At the end of the day, being informed is all about making decisions based on science and society’s interests. Listening to what the health care system has to say, and inform yourselves and others.


Text: Bryndís Silja Pálmadóttir
Translation: Hjalti Freyr Ragnarsson