Is there any impulse more fierce than a mother’s or father’s to protect their child from harm?
And is there any political act more cynical than weaponising that parental bond to spread fear, chaos and mistrust among enemies?
Yet in the increasingly toxic debate over whether children should be vaccinated against infectious diseases, little lives are being put at risk by one of the most powerful men in the world.
At first sight, this darkest twist in the anti-vaxxer saga – that President Vladimir Putin may be partly responsible for the exponential rise in cases of measles across Europe and America – appears scarcely credible.
Yet Russian trolls and bots have been systematically tweeting disinformation about vaccines to create social discord, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health last year.
The analysis of thousands of tweets sent between 2014 and 2017 showed that Russian troll accounts termed “content polluters” deliberately sought to undermine public faith in science by aggressively promoting anti-vaccine messages.
As a medic, I find this prospect horrifying.
It means that parents who are genuinely trying to do what is best for their children – steering clear of vaccines they believe are harmful – may be playing unwittingly into the hands of a foreign power aiming for maximum disruption.
Parents have it hard enough as it is.
How – in an age in which fake news, conspiracy theories and dodgy pseudo-science are rife – can anyone hope to sift fact from fiction?
Online influencers will urge you to cure your cancer with turmeric, clean your colon with coffee enemas, carry jade eggs in your vagina and brush your teeth with charcoal all in the nebulous name of “wellness”.
In contrast, the benefits of vaccines are, you might assume, incontrovertible. They are spectacularly successful at saving lives.
Thanks to vaccination, smallpox, which once killed up to one in seven children in Europe, was officially eradicated in 1979.
The introduction in the 1990s of the vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae, a major cause of deadly bacterial meningitis in children, caused cases to fall by 99%.
Only last month, the power of vaccines to stop cervical cancer was revealed. Research from Scotland found that in a decade, a new human papilloma virus vaccine caused a 90% fall in rates of pre-cancerous cells in young women.
Overall, the World Health Organisation estimates that every year, a staggering two to three million lives are saved by vaccines.
The scientific evidence could not be more compelling. Yet the WHO has also identified “vaccine hesitancy”, people’s reluctance or refusal to vaccinate, as one of the top 10 threats to global health of 2019.
Despite the life-saving benefits of immunisation campaigns, rumours around the safety of vaccines have eroded public confidence in immunisation so severely they have caused dangerously low vaccination rates and multiple disease outbreaks.
Interestingly, the more wealthy or highly educated you are, the most likely you may be to reject vaccines.
If Putin aims to cause tangible harm by bombarding the public with misinformation, he’s certainly achieving his objective.
Preventable diseases are making a global comeback.
Take measles, one of the most contagious diseases on the planet.
Measles can cause severe brain damage, disability and death. In 2018, cases in the UK quadrupled, leading NHS England chief, Simon Stevens, to warn that parents rejecting vaccines are a “growing public health time bomb”.
Across Europe last year, 72 children and adults were killed by measles – a disease that nobody need die from.
Small wonder then that “anti-vaxxers” who reject vaccination are vilified on social and in mainstream media, branded hysterics, idiots, monsters, murderers.
But vaccine sceptics should not be condemned as raving conspiracy theorists.
Most are simply conscientious parents, anxiously searching for reliable information in a bewildering sea of claim and counter-claim.
And it is too easy to judge. What parent hasn’t, at least once or twice, developed a queasy yet irrational fear of something lurking out there that threatens their child?
In my own case, being a doctor didn’t stop me briefly, irrationally diagnosing my own children with, among other things, brain tumours, meningitis, leukaemia and rabies.
We are all vulnerable to paranoia, particularly when it comes to our children’s safety.
So what is the evidence for the harms of vaccines, and does it have any merit?
No single individual has done more to stoke fear among parents than the disgraced former gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield.
Two decades ago, Wakefield, who is British, published a paper in The Lancet claiming the combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccine caused autism.
Although the paper was eventually retracted and Wakefield struck off the medical register for his fraudulent science, the damage was done. Parents panicked and shunned the vaccine in droves, triggering outbreaks of measles across the globe.
Today, far from skulking away, Wakefield has shamelessly reinvented himself in America as a heroic underdog, cruelly victimised by the medical establishment.
No scientific study since Wakefield’s fabrications has found any link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The most recent research, a Danish paper investigating more than 650,000 children over 10 years, found no association whatsoever.
Nevertheless, Wakefield exploits his minor celebrity status – he dates supermodel, Elle Macpherson, and was invited to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration ball – to insist there is a massive conspiracy to force vaccines upon our children.
Oozing charisma, but with a distinct lack of irony, Wakefield, himself a proven doctor-charlatan, insists you cannot trust doctors to tell the truth. The facts speak otherwise.
It is undeniably the case that no doctor can claim vaccines are always, in all circumstances, entirely safe.
Exceptionally rarely, as with any medicine or food, vaccines may cause the severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, meaning they can, in theory, kill.
But a study of the 117 million vaccines given in the UK from 1997 to 2003 showed 130 reports of anaphylaxis. The overall rate of anaphylaxis is therefore only one in 900,000 – almost literally one in a million.
Many parents worry about less dramatic harms to their children. Mild and temporary side effects such as pain at the injection site, fever or vomiting are more common.
Around one in 10 children will experience these. In around one in 10,000 children, fits known as febrile convulsions, may occur.
These can be extremely distressing for parents but, again, do not have long-term side-effects.
That leaves chemicals: the idea that in vaccinating our babies, we are pumping them full of toxic substances like mercury and aluminium. Both are present in vaccines, although in tiny traces.
The former acts as a preservative, the latter helps strengthen the immune system’s response to the vaccine. But the quantities of each are so minuscule, they carry no risk.
Every successful conspiracy theory taps into a wider concern, in this case, a reluctance among some parents to expose their children to artificial or unnatural substances.
In a way, I can empathise. I well remember, when weaning my babies, pureeing and freezing cubes of organic spinach, as though I might somehow be a less-than-perfect mother otherwise.
It is easy to see how the desire for your children to grow up naturally might evolve into resistance to vaccines.
Finally, some parents fear that vaccines will overwhelm a child’s immune system. But from the moment of birth, our bodies are flooded with micro-organisms. We are invaded by viruses, bacteria and foreign bodies in their billions every day.
Most doctors are surprisingly lax about their children rolling in dirt and eating bugs. We know exposure to pathogens strengthens an immune system. I have never yet met a UK doctor who has not vaccinated their child.
If vaccines really were a plot dreamed up by big pharma to fleece us in our millions, we would be the first to smell a rat.
But, ironically, vaccination has become almost too successful for its own good.
For scaremongers like Wakefield, their greatest weapon is the lack of hard, bloody, shocking evidence of the devastation unleashed by diseases like measles.
We have developed a collective amnesia: why should we fear what we have never even seen in our lifetimes?
As recently as the 1950s, hospitals were full of children incarcerated for months in iron lungs, the polio virus having paralysed them so they could not breath unaided.
In 1962, author Roald Dahl lost his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, to measles with heartbreaking swiftness.
He wrote: “I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it… Then one morning, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.
“‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her. ‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said. In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.”
If you had seen, as I have, a child die from meningitis, or a young woman from cervical cancer, instead of fearing vaccines, you might feel blessed your children live in an era where they can be spared such horrors.
It is far from easy to stay objective when small armies of trolls are terrorising parents with lurid disinformation on social media.
But, please, if you don’t know who to trust about vaccines, have a face-to-face chat with a nurse or doctor. After all, we didn’t join the NHS to get rich quick or to sow political turmoil.
We just want to help, not judge, people.
Lies about vaccinations put your child at risk
By Lynne Routledge
Parents who think they are doing the right thing by refusing to vaccinate their children don’t know just how dangerous measles can be.
Like many mothers of my generation, I do.
There was no jab when my children were toddlers. So, both contracted measles, and both were very sick little girls, aged 18 months and two-and-a-half. They were delirious, and couldn’t even open their eyes,
It was Easter 1965. At Easter 1915, my grandmother Florence, who was with me by my daughters’ bedside, lost two children to measles.
As she was burying her first-born, five-year-old Hilda, Walter, 18 months, died. I have their death certificates, which give the cause as measles. Their graves are in St James’s churchyard, Wakefield.
I was desperate with fear history was repeating itself, but my daughters pulled through. No child should be put through this ordeal.
My younger sister also contracted the disease, aged six. She was desperately ill, and spent time in Snapethorpe isolation hospital. We weren’t allowed to visit.
My husband Paul, the Mirror journalist, and I are glad and proud our granddaughters have definitely had the jab.
This is a wake-up call for mothers. With all my heart I appeal to you: Do the right thing by your children, don’t take the risk of this horrible disease.
Take up the full programme of preventative medicine that the NHS offers.
You owe it to them.