In New York, home to a recent measles outbreak, vaccines are at the forefront of many people’s minds as children begin the school year under new regulations eliminating most exceptions that allowed attendance at public and private schools by the unvaccinated. On the eve of Peer Review Week 2019, one can’t help but be reminded of the greatest failure of peer review in recent memory, the infamous Wakefield paper in the Lancet that has had such a long-running pernicious effect on public health.
Although the thoroughly disproven links between vaccines and autism remain prominent in the current rationale for vaccine skepticism, it’s worth noting that the phenomenon is nothing new, and in fact dates back to the 19th century (and in light of vaccine requirements, also worth acknowledging that George Washington mandated that the Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox even in the days before vaccines were invented, via a process called “variolation“). The Washington Post has put together an informative video series on vaccines, and the first chapter looks at the history of such skepticism.
Essentially, they tie it to the short memory of the human species. When the ravages of diseases like smallpox and diptheria can be clearly seen, vaccination rates are high. Once those diseases are largely eradicated, complacency sets in. So even without the Wakefield paper adding fuel to the fire, it’s likely that our distance from the terror of major outbreaks of disease would still be driving people away from availing themselves of one of the great miracles of modern medicine. To quote Scholarly Kitchen founder Kent Anderson (when recently discussing an unrelated matter), “human nature often means learning things again the hard way.”