Measles outbreak: How a decades old, fraudulent anti-vaccine study still affects public health

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Canadian travellers warned of measles outbreak in Europe
WATCH: Canadian travellers warned of measles outbreak in Europe – Apr 5, 2017

A measles outbreak is spreading across Europe and health experts say it’s because of a steadily growing anti-vaccination movement.

Reported cases of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus almost quadrupled in Europe in 2017 (21,000 cases) compared to the year before (5,273 cases), with the highest rates in Italy, Romania and Ukraine, according to the World Health Organization.

And the reason parents may not be vaccinating their children could be due to a widely discredited research paper that was published 20 years ago this week, experts say.

‘Fraudulent’ autism-vaccine study

In 1998, the journal Lancet published former British doctor Andrew Wakefield’s article, which linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. In his study, Wakefield said 12 children showed that the three vaccines taken together could alter immune systems causing brain damage.

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The publication of the study led to a widespread increase in the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for fear of its link to autism.

However, his findings were widely rejected. Dozens of studies tried to replicate the results, but couldn’t, as his work was based on a tiny sample. The British Medical Journal called his research “fraudulent,” and on Feb. 2, 2010, the Lancet formally retracted the study, due to serious flaws and an undisclosed conflict of interest. The British medical authorities stripped Wakefield of his license in May 2010.

“Andrew Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited,” infectious diseases epidemiologist David Fisman told Global News. “There’s certainly no increased risk of autism.”

An autism researcher at the Mayo Clinic,  Dr. Sunil Mehta told Vox, that after hundreds and hundreds of studies on thousands of children, “We can say with almost as much certainty than anybody could ever say that vaccines don’t cause autism.”

WATCH: Study concludes no connection between MMR vaccine and autism

Dr. Benjamin Mazer, a doctor at Yale-New Haven Hospital said despite the retraction the contemporary anti-vaccine movement still uses this study.

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“There will be no study that will convince them otherwise. Despite the retraction and discipline of Dr. Wakefield, he is still held up as a hero of the movement,” he said.

He said the reason this study is still held up two decades later is that the cause of autism is still a mystery. So if you are a parent looking for answers, the vaccine link may be “an appealing idea,” Mazer said.

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“You also have people who have a dislike for the profit motive in medicine and pharmaceutical companies. There’s a dislike for feeling dehumanized from overworked doctors and a dislike for the cost of health care,” he said.

Italy’s measles outbreak

This is what is happening in Italy, as a group of campaigners against vaccinations is trying to dissuade the public from getting immunizations by citing supposed risks, such as autism.

The country is now facing one of its worst epidemics of measles in recent years. It’s so bad that in 2017, the government passed a law requiring parents to vaccinate their children or face a fine.

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WATCH: Vaccines will help you avoid the measles outbreak

“Measles is incredibly infectious,” Mazer said. “And the measles vaccine is also one of the most effective vaccines. So people don’t see the benefits because people aren’t getting the illness.”

That is until people stop vaccinating, he said.

Society’s resistance to infectious diseases like measles depends on “herd immunity” — having a critical mass of people vaccinated against a disease. The lower the vaccination rates, the more likely an outbreak becomes.

“You only need very small amounts of ‘opting out’ for measles to resurge. We need vaccine coverage of more than 95 per cent to keep measles at bay.”

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For example, a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in 2014 was traced to the fact that a critical number of parents had refused to vaccinate their children.

WATCH: Measles outbreak in Disneyland growing

Mercury in vaccines

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late U.S. attorney general and senator, has long argued that vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal (a mercury-containing compound) may cause autism and has advocated for parents to more easily opt out of childhood vaccinations.

Thimerosal prevents the growth of dangerous bacteria and fungus and is used as a preservative for flu vaccines in multi-dose vials, to keep the vaccine free from contamination, according to the CDC.

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While it’s true that many vaccines contain chemicals like mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde, the doses are so small that the substances are not considered toxic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“No reputable scientific studies have found an association between thimerosal in vaccines and autism,” according to the CDC.

Because people were so worried about vaccinations containing thimerosal, the CDC made some change in order to calm worried parents, Mazer said.

WATCH: 1 in 5 Torontonians think vaccines could cause autism, polls says

Now there aren’t any childhood vaccines that contain thimerosal as a preservative (except for flu vaccines in multi-dose vials).

“They made the changes out of good faith, not scientific reasoning,” he said.

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“I understand why patients are weary and concerned. But I think their fears are being stoked by the anti-vaccine movement,” Mazer said.

He said new outbreaks of diseases will probably terrify people and lead to support for vaccination. But “we really need to work on better addressing what patient’s concerns are and improving trust,” he added.

— With files from Global News’ Patrick Cain

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