If current trends continue, 2019 will be the worst year for measles in the United States in decades.

Though the disease was officially declared eliminated in 2000, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that it is now at its highest level in the US since 1992. The problem, according to the CDC and the World Health Organization, is “vaccine hesitancy”. But how did the public come to fear immunization?

The answer begins back in 1998 when the well-respected academic journal the Lancet published a now-debunked study that found a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (commonly referred to as MMR). But the authors had looked at only 12 children to reach their conclusions. The information in it was later found to be false, meaning that the paper was retracted in 2010.

But the damage was already done. A significant section of the public had come to establish a link between vaccines and developmental disorders in children. Today, around one in 10 US adults believe that the risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits according to surveys by Pew Research Center.

Those views are held despite the body of evidence showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This includes:

A 1999 study, also published in The Lancet, that studied 498 cases of autism.

A 2001 study, published in Pediatrics, that studied 262 children.

A 2002 study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that studied 537,303 children.

A 2019 study, in Annals Of Internal Medicine, that studied 657,461 children.

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That weight of evidence, totaling a sample size of 1,195,524, is visualised below. It was inspired by Dr Charles Li’s work gathering this research.

This image is the first in a series showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.



Photograph: Mona Chalabi

Now scroll to zoom out.

This image is the second in a series showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.



Photograph: Mona Chalabi

Keep going…

This image is the third in a series showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.



Photograph: Mona Chalabi

…and going

This image is the fourth in a series showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.



Photograph: Mona Chalabi

… and going

This image is the fifth in a series showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.



Photograph: Mona Chalabi

… now you’ve got the scale of the evidence!

This image is the sixth in a series showing that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.



Photograph: Mona Chalabi

To find out how a lack of immunization has contributed to measles outbreaks, see this previous column.

This is a column that illustrates numbers from the news each week. Have feedback or ideas for future columns? Write to me: mona.chalabi@theguardian.com



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