20% still think vaccines could cause autism: poll

WATCH ABOVE: Jennifer Palisoc reports on the effectiveness of vaccines and the people who think they can autism. 

TORONTO – Despite authoritative science demonstrating vaccines don’t cause autism, at least one in five Torontonians still think they do. And a further 19 per cent don’t agree or disagree, according to a new poll from Main Street Technologies.

The poll, which surveyed 3,022 people, also claims 30 per cent of Torontonians think parents should be able to decide against vaccinating their children.

“What’s concerning is 20 per cent of residents agree vaccines could cause autism, and that 15 per cent don’t believe lower immunizations rates will cause serious health problems. There are many children who cannot be immunized and who are depending on herd immunity for their well-being,” Quito Maggi, president of Mainstreet Technologies said in a release.

Six people have been diagnosed with measles this week in Toronto – at least four of them had not received their full vaccination.

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Measles requires two shots, one given at 12 months of age, the second between four and six years old. The vaccines are approximately 95 per cent effective against the disease. Higher vaccination rates can keep the disease at bay through herd immunity – the rate at which there are enough people immunized to protect even those who are unable to get the vaccine.

READ MORE: Why is measles so contagious? 5 things you need to know

Measles had been virtually wiped out in North America by 2000. But since then, with the rise of an anti-vaccination movement, sporadic outbreaks have been seen across the continent. Toronto is dealing with one now, and there are roughly 100 people who became infected visiting Disneyland in the United States since January.

The power of celebrity

Experts say misinformed celebrities, as well as the ease, at which pseudo-science can be spread on the internet have made it easier for people find bad information.

“People will look to them as peers and the thing is vaccines are a complicated science,” Dr. David Goldfarb, an specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital said in an interview Friday.

 “You wouldn’t expect to get advice on how to deal with a brain tumour from a celebrity and I think the same should apply for vaccines.”

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READ MORE: 6 vaccination myths debunked

Two high-profile American politicians came out this week questioning the need for vaccinations. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said “parents need to have some measure of choice in things” and Congressman Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, said there had been “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”

Alicia Silverstone and Jenny McCarthy have also been vocal celebrities who’ve questioned the effectiveness of vaccines.

One discredited study

Many anti-vaxxers formed their ideas from a discredited 1998 study which raised concerns about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Since the study was published, 10 of 13 authors have offered regrets about its publication, the journal in which it was published issued a formal retraction and the lead author had his medical license revoked. The Canadian Pediatric Society has also declared “there is no scientific evidence to support the theory of a link.

READ MORE: How fading dread of deadly diseases could let them stage a comeback

Anti-vaxxers find an audience on the internet

The internet also helps spread misinformation, Goldfarb said. The open nature of the internet allows anyone to publish anything and as a result, anti-vaxxers as well as people denying evolution can find an audience.

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A quick Google search provides hundreds of blog posts and stories from celebrities and normal people claiming vaccines caused their children to develop autism.

“And when they are vocal and they’re telling heart-wrenching stories, people listen to them and think what they’re saying is true, when in fact it’s not,” Dr. Shelley Deeks, a spokesperson for Public Health Ontario said Friday.

People also don’t understand how dangerous the disease can be, he said. The disease hasn’t been a problem in Canada since the development of the vaccine and as a result, people under the age of 40 have generally never seen another person infected.

“There’s collectively been a loss of awareness of how devastating a lot of these infections can be and it’s really a function of how effective the vaccines have been,” Goldfarb said.

Vaccines need a better brand

Anti-vaxxers have celebrities and vocal proponents – scientists aren’t always given the same amount of airtime. Deeks says public health officials need to educate parents and kids about why vaccines are safe.

“That means we have work to do to communicate with them about why that’s not the truth,” she said. “I think the big message is that vaccines are safe, vaccines are extremely, extremely effective and we just need to ensure that our children and that adults are vaccinated.”

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Goldfarb suggested an estimated 15 million lives have been saved by vaccines and within the scientific community and said there is no debate about whether they work.

“I think there needs to be new and innovative way of influencing and informing the public. Having people, like quote-unquote experts, talking to people seems to be not as effective as potentially having their peers to talk to them about these issues.”

– With files from Marianne Dimain and Jennifer Palisoc

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