Vaccines Suffer from Poor Public Image

by: H.S. Ayoub

It was in 1796 that Edward Jenner successfully immunized a child against smallpox, and his experiment introduced the word ‘vaccination.’ This event motivated a tremendous movement by doctors all over the world to discover vaccines against a host of deadly diseases.

Jenner’s discovery was not welcomed by everyone, however, as criticism was fired at vaccines by many, including economist Thomas Malthus who thought that vaccination could lead to unhealthy population surges.

The Beginning of Mass Vaccinations
In the early 20th century, World War I saw the beginning of mass mandatory vaccinations as troops who died of influenza almost equaled the number that fell during battle. Troops returning home had their kids immunized in numbers not seen before. During World War II, the United States celebrated the discovery of the Polio vaccine. Polio especially found itself in the public cross hairs as the debilitating disease left children in wheelchairs, and with deformed limbs. So it was not surprising to learn that Jonas Salk was regarded a national hero.
Americans, however, were not completely trustful of mandatory programs initiated by their government. In fact, the popular Raggedy Ann doll, symbolically limp, was developed in 1915 by a grieving father whose daughter died shortly after being immunized at school. He always blamed the vaccine.

According to Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, Vietnam and Watergate fueled the fire of growing mistrust that American citizens had for their Government. It was during this period that the image of the medical researcher was seen as the big drug company co-conspirator, hiding dangerous information from public knowledge. This set the stage for what is believed to be the singular event responsible for the current grassroots anti-vaccination movement.

Parents Start Grassroots Movement

In 1982, a television documentary, predictively titled "Vaccine Roulette", was aired, showcasing the DTP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis). This vaccine is a standard during childhood and has protected many from unnecessary suffering. Yet, due to the program’s emphasis on the negative side effects of this vaccine, which are seen in a very tiny percentage of children, public outcry surged, and a new grassroots movement by parents took shape. This presented an opportunity for the authorities to educate the public on vaccines and immunization programs. Instead, the government did little.

The current anti-vaccination movement, according to Allen, is lead by conspiracy types, who would trust the internet more so than their political leadership. But the problem lies with the success of vaccines; they are too successful!

Parents have been so accustomed to the results of the vaccinations that they grow ever more unaware of the risk of not vaccinating their children, and instead focus on the risks of vaccination. This is a dangerous trend, especially today where there exists a growing number of unvaccinated children, and a rise in diseases which are easily preventable.

Vaccine Development Renewed
Pharmaceutical companies are not helping the situation as fewer firms have programs aimed at vaccine production. The high cost of development and fear of legal consequences have pushed the industry away. But that dark day in September of 2001 has motivated many in the industry to initiate programs aimed at producing vaccines against a host of viruses that could be used by terrorists.

The avian flu virus pandemic also initiated vaccine development activity. Companies such as Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX), GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), Novartis (NYSE:NVS), and Iomi (IOMI), all have avian flu vaccine development programs. In fact, except for Novavax, all have been awarded government contracts under Project Bioshield to aid in the research and development costs. But Project Bioshield has so far fallen below expectations, and public mistrust of government programs continues.
Just recently, Merck (NYSE:MRK) has initiated a public campaign aimed at motivating young women to be vaccinated with Gardasil against the Human Papilloma Virus [HPV]. Research has shown that HPV is linked with the development of cervical cancer. Instead of attracting positive public opinion however, the company has fueled another anti-vaccination debate as it began lobbying for political backing of vaccination mandates. Already, some states are considering HPV vaccine mandates, and a Texas Senator recently issued an executive order to vaccinate girls with Gardasil.

Opponents argue that vaccinating teen girls with Gardasil could motivate them to engage in sexual activity too early.

Before mandates are set, both the government and the pharmaceutical industry need to take this opportunity to motivate public discussion and education. This could be an opportunity for a change in the public image of vaccines.

- NY Times Book Review of Vaccine
- Science & Stats of HPV (HealthPolitics Video)
- Public Awareness Needed Before Vaccinating Girls with Merck's Gardasil
- GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Iomi Land Avian Flu Vaccine Contracts
- Novavax to Advance Avian Flu Vaccine Despite Government Snub