Vaccines under threat
It is a proven scientific fact that vaccines are one of the greatest medical innovations, given their ability to save lives. They are responsible for the near eradication of smallpox and polio and a significant reduction in harm caused by many other infectious diseases.
However, to be effective, immunisation programmes need a high level of uptake in a given population. This is due to phenomenon called herd immunity, in the absence of which levels of a microbe circulating in the community remain above a critical point, which enable disease outbreaks become regular occurrences.
But vaccines are under threat from a political source: US president Donald Trump is raising doubts about the safety and value of vaccines. Last week, immunologist Prof Kingston Mills of Trinity College Dublin spoke of the “Trump effect”, as the newly installed president spreads fear about vaccine safety over social media.
“President Trump has been tweeting about vaccines, making claims about links with autism,” Prof Mills said. “He has been adding further fuel to the fire that vaccines have side-effects that have not been proven.” Among the 20 vaccines that prevent life-threatening diseases are immunisations against deadly strains of meningitis, the congenital damage caused by rubella in expectant mothers, and the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV vaccine has the potential to reduce deaths from cervical cancer; however the uptake of the vaccine in the Republic has dropped to 50 per cent due to a campaign claiming it caused chronic fatigue syndrome. And while the putative link has not been proven, the negative publicity persists.
It is no coincidence Trump’s election campaign featured the disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield, who was struck off the medical register in Britain after fraudulently claiming the MMR vaccine caused autism. The actor Robert de Niro and prominent campaigner Robert J Kennedy have called for a vaccine commission to be established. “Anti -vaxxers” are close to power in the US and could do untold damage to global health.