Going viral

Maybe it starts with a mild fever, a scratch at the back of your throat or a cough you just can’t shake. Nothing a few days of bed rest won’t fix, hopefully.

But for an unlucky few, these are the first signs of a measles infection.

Measles is just one among a list of diseases that includes whooping cough, mumps and chickenpox, each of which was long considered nearly vanquished but has had a resurgence, as the anti-vaccination movement has grown.

“Measles we got two years ago, down in Regina, especially, but also a number of people in Alberta,” said Andrew Potter, director and CEO of Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan. “Measles in Canada is exceedingly rare. They managed to trace it to somebody who went to Disneyland. You go to Disneyland and there’s a bunch of kids and, bingo, it just spreads like wildfire.”

Andrew Potter, CEO of VIDO-InterVac, discusses diseases and the anti-vax movement.

Vaccines, which stimulate the immune system with a micro-dose of a communicable disease to spark a response that leaves the human body better equipped to handle future encounters, are facing growing backlash in some circles. For Potter, who is also a professor of veterinary microbiology, this trend brings to mind worrisome memories of his own life prior to widespread immunization.

“When I was kid I had mumps, I had measles, I had whooping cough, I had them all,” he said. “The whole principle behind vacci­nation is that you end up essentially immune, not for life but for many, many years—sometimes decades.”

Potter sees two main drivers behind the rise of the anti-vac­cination movement. The first, a marketing push from parties aiming to make an easy buck off a trendy topic, he is quick to brush off.

The second driver, however, comes from a much more familiar place of fear, even love: those with family diagnosed with autism, desperately searching for answers.

“They’re looking for something to hang their hat on, and vaccines are as good of a thing as any,” Potter said. “If you imagine having a child who’s anywhere from one year old up to four years old, autism is usually diagnosed at that time. And what else has happened at that time? They’ve had a ton of vaccines. Making that correlation is a real easy thing for people to do, and I understand that fully.”

Potter largely attributes the trend to a confusion of correlation and causation, with many people watching the rise in both the number of vaccinations and diagnoses of autism as linked, simply because of their similar trajectory. He points to a similar pairing he likes to highlight in response, stressing there’s no confirmed link between cases of autism and vaccines.

“If you plot the number of cases of autism, you have an absolutely perfect match with the consumption of organic food—and most people I think would probably agree organic food is not a bad thing.”

The reality is that not all people are going to get vaccinated, sometimes due to their own issues of health, religion or other circumstances. But Potter emphasized the importance of retaining what’s known as herd immunity.

“If you vaccinate a certain percentage of the population, it protects all the others,” he said. “You have kindergarten, the classic breeding ground of disease. If you have 85 per cent of those kids vaccinated, you’re not going to have a problem, if you throw an unvaccinated kid in there. However, if that goes down to, let’s say, 60 per cent, suddenly you’ve got yourself an issue. The percentage varies for each disease.”

The solution, Potter said, is to open a dialogue around the importance of vaccinations and to simplify the process of getting immunized, pointing to non-injection implementation methods and greater accessibility as ideas that have helped curb disease resurgences in the past. And disease reduction is ultimately what’s most important. What’s at stake, he said, is more than most people realize at first glance.

“Vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical intervention in history,” he said. “It’s that simple. They are the single most cost-effective way. Preventing disease is way cheaper than treating disease.”

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