The world is aware of the latest measles outbreak, whose starting point was Disneyland’s theme park, a health crisis which brought the disease and its dreadful consequences back to the public’s eye: pneumonia, hearing loss, brain damage, and death. The great majority agrees upon its urgency, with only few lone voices claiming it is “really just a fever and a rash”.
However, back in the 1960s, many doctors and experts considered measles to be a benign disease, even though it killed 400 to 500 Americans a year. But as soon as the measles vaccine was introduced, campaigns and efforts of promoting it helped in the remolding of our view of measles. We have been immunizing against it for five decades now, and the disease has grown into its infamous status of deadly killer.
Measles is not the only disease to have suffered such transformation in perception, but is in fact part of a pattern, repeating every time a new vaccine is developed. It is not a sign that the disease’s effects are overestimated, but merely that as soon as a vaccine is introduced, our perception of the disease it prevents shifts dramatically.
Why does this happen? Two things happen simultaneously when a new vaccine is released: the number of people affected by the disease decreases, but our awareness of the risks of the disease increases. The target infections are suddenly under a spotlight, and they become defined by the urgency of their prevention.
This was the case of measles, which was first prevented by vaccine in in 1963.We would be surprised to see the general perception of measles back then, when many parents and doctors believed measles is a relatively harmless childhood disease. Even though it spread among 3 million to 4 million people each year, causing almost 48,000 hospital admissions annually, doctors ignored it in the favor of worrying for the threats presented by smallpox and polio. Measles was presented in the Centers for Disease Control report as having a mild level of severity, which rarely caused complications.
But as soon as preventive immunization reached the market, measles received a new scientific attention. A few years after its release, experts started comparing measles to polio, the number one priority in prevention of the previous decade. Scientists realized it is much more threatening to the child’s health, and encouraged federal health officials to launch an awareness campaign, because parents weren’t enthusiastic about the vaccine and did not take into consideration the dangers of the disease.
Health officials launched the campaign, which officially spread the word that measles should be treated as a serious disease with dreadful consequences in some cases: deafness, encephalitis, pneumonia and death. The campaign’s supporters had one motto: “One death, one brain-damaged child, or even one child who needs hospitalization is one too many”.
As the public was more aware of the dangers, scientists pressed on for finding more about measles. Doctors grew concerned about the unprecedented rates reported to health departments. They reached several conclusions: measles appeared to kill more people than previously thought; brain damage could be a side effect even in mild cases; even fetuses exposed to the disease in the womb could be harmed.
Because the public was still not on board with the vaccine, health officials and states decided to pass laws for a mandatory measles vaccine for schoolchildren. Due to increased effort in publicizing it, the country reached an all-time low of measles cases in about a decade.
Following the introduction of the measles vaccine, health officials and vaccine-developers applied the same approach to new vaccines. For example, mumps, which was considered benign before its vaccine showed up in 1967, got really serious after that. The same happened with hepatitis B, which used to be considered an obscure infection before the vaccine first came out in 1981. However, soon after that hepatitis B got the infamous reputation of lurking in playgrounds, piercing parlors, and nail salons, the little cousin of AIDS.
Chickenpox vaccine, release in the 1990s, morphed the public perception of the disease from an uncomfortable rite of childhood to a deadly disease which can cause sepsis, pneumonia, and even death. And the last of them all is human papillomavirus (HPV), which has got a brand new reputation in the past decade, transformed the sexually transmitted infection into a feared cause of cancer. For each of these dramatic transformations in perception, the vaccine acted as the triggered.
That happened because each new vaccine required a lot of deliberation on how and why it should be used, which, in turn, created a scientific buzz around the disease. On one side, federal health officials collaborating with scientists collected new information about the disease’s risks and complications. On the other, the vaccine-making industry did its part very well, marketing its vaccine and raising awareness through media. During these campaigns designed to spread talks of each disease, the shifting of the public and scientific perception shifts considerably.
Image Source: Breakthroughs