Via The Conversation, an article by history professor Elena Conis of Emory University: How vaccines change the way we think about disease. After describing the introduction of the first measles vaccine in 1963, Conis continues:
As the campaign wore on, scientists continued to study the disease more closely than ever. Doctors began to report measles cases to health departments at unprecedented rates. And together, doctors and scientists began to pay more attention to the disease’s risks than even before. As a result, a new picture of the disease began to form: it appeared to cause more deaths than previously thought, brain damage in even mild cases, even harm to fetuses.
As the public continued to respond to the national campaign with “general apathy,” however, health officials redoubled their efforts to publicize measles’ “dramatic aspects,” and states began passing laws requiring the vaccine for schoolchildren. Within just over a decade, the country saw an all-time low of measles cases — and the disease had solidly acquired its new reputation as a deadly infection worthy of prevention at any cost.
We used to think mumps and chickenpox were ‘mild’ too
In the decades that followed the introduction of the measles vaccine, vaccine makers and health officials duplicated this approach with one new vaccine after another.
Mumps, often the butt of jokes in its pre-vaccine days, was no laughing matter within a decade of its vaccine’s introduction in 1967. Hepatitis B was considered an obscure infection of little import to most Americans when its vaccine first came out in 1981, but soon after it evolved into a “cousin” of AIDS known for lurking in nail salons, piercing parlors and playgrounds.
Since the development of the chickenpox vaccine in the 1990s, the virus has been transformed in the public imagination from an innocuous if uncomfortable rite of childhood to a highly contagious infection that can cause pneumonia, sepsis and sometimes death. And in just the last decade, human papillomavirus (HPV) has morphed from a little-known sexually transmitted infection to a widely known cause of multiple forms of cancer. Each of these transformations in perception was triggered by a new vaccine.
Each new vaccine invited deliberation on how it should be used. That, in turn, focused increased scientific attention on the disease. Often, as federal health officials and other scientists accumulated new information about the disease’s risks and complications, the vaccine maker did its part to market its vaccine. As talk of each disease and its more dramatic aspects spread, public and scientific perception of the disease gradually transformed.
In this country, high vaccination rates rest on a consensus about the diseases prevented by vaccines. When doctors, health officials and, in particular, parents view a disease as serious, they view its vaccine as one worth getting.
The recent increase in the number of philosophical objectors to measles vaccine shows that historical consensus about the disease itself has eroded in recent years. But history also shows that one surefire route to consensus about a disease is fear of that disease. And fear often spreads like wildfire during disease outbreaks, much like what is happening once again now with measles.