August is National Immunization Awareness Month.
That said it remains important that, as individuals, we learn more about immunizations and the ones that we may need over the coming months. Typically – and this is a generality – as flu season kicks off around September, it is important to get the flu vaccine. Worldwide vaccinations protect people from different types of endemic diseases such as influenza, measles, and other similar diseases. Immunizations and vaccines have been a mostly net gain to humans, although, regrettably, not everyone agrees.
Unfortunately, for decades there has been a growing movement to stop vaccines, mostly from individuals who do not have medical training or from individuals who endorse conspiracy theories. For example, with an estimated 34 million individuals living with HIV/AIDS globally, the disease remains a significant public health threat, particularly in countries across the African continent. In response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, “AIDS denialism” – a conspiracy theory that proclaims HIV does not cause AIDS or that HIV/AIDS is not a real disease has emerged. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki is an AIDS denialist, and during his tenure as president of South Africa, and researchers have documented how an estimated 330,000 individuals died of AIDS and 35,000 babies were born with HIV infection.
Another example that emerges from the literature concerns the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. That year, the H1N1 influenza strain originated in southern Mexico and quickly spread to North America, Egypt, Europe, and Indonesia. Additionally, the more recent outbreak of the 2015 Zika virus also was surrounded by conspiratorial ideas. Conspiracies surrounding the 2015 Zika virus outbreak were similar to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. These conspiratorial causes ranged from narratives involving international actors to chemical companies to the Gates Foundation Conspiracies surrounding the Zika virus outbreak spread quickly across the digital information landscape, circulating across online platforms such as YouTube, blogs, podcasts, and other alternative media.
In the area of childhood vaccines, the combined MMR vaccine has remained central to conspiracy theories since a 1998 article by Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet. The article claimed “a possible link between the MMR vaccine and the appearance of autism,” which although was later retracted by the journal, fed into conspiratorial beliefs about medical mistrust and “Big Pharma.” Researchers have found that after the media seized upon Wakefield’s findings, MMR vaccinations rates fell below the 95% threshold in some regions, and in 2008, 14 years after the spread of measles, mumps, and rubella was halted, “measles was declared to be endemic in the United Kingdom.” Again, research has found that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have an adverse impact upon vaccine intentions and shape health-related behaviors.
Finally, with the above examples in mind, it is important to consider how important immunizations are, and that it remains important to consume accurate information about them.