SCIENCE NEWS: John Oliver Tackles Vaccines


Since 2014, Last Week Tonight (hosted by John Oliver) has been enlightening those of us who are, shall we say – ‘less knowledgeable’ on complex issues ranging from US politics to marketing in a simple manner, and somehow still leaving the viewer as able to laugh at the absurdity of the world as it stands. One of the latest subjects to receive the ‘John Oliver treatment’ is vaccines. As the topic of vaccines comes up, however, there are the inevitable responses that are elicited from those that work in the scientific field that may range from ‘why are we still talking about this?’ to ‘vaccines are necessary’. While I believe the latter to be true, the Last Week Tonight analysis primarily focuses on the concerns of those who are less inclined to believe this, namely anxious parents, and goes on to explain the statement as to why ‘they are simply necessary’.

To begin with, let’s consider the same case study as seen in Last Week Tonight, Polio. For those of us who have been lucky enough to have never witnessed polio, or poliomyelitis, it is a highly contagious disease that often affects young children. Once contracted, it attacks the nervous system and can result in paralysis – from which 1 in 200 children will die. If that isn’t scary enough, it must be noted that there is no known cure for polio. There are only preventative measures, namely vaccination. The polio vaccine was discovered in 1953 by Dr. Jonas Salk, following a year that had seen 3,000 deaths from the disease. When the vaccine was made available to the public, extensive queues of relieved and grateful parents were seen outside medical centres. Since then, UNICEF has found that vaccines have nearly eradicated polio (with only 359 cases reported worldwide in 2014), have completely eradicated smallpox, and are reducing 2-3 million deaths annually from a range of other diseases, including measles and tetanus.

Statistics like these are mind-boggling to many, who often need to google these diseases to see what they look like – which should be evidence enough that vaccines are effective and beneficial, and indeed one of mankind’s greatest medical discoveries. They are certainly preferable to providing your children with used lollipops, saliva and pus soaked clothing (one would hope) – however, this is an alternate route that concerned and anxious parents have used to ‘immunise’ their children. Why those methods are unfavourable, to say the least, should be rather self-evident – and yet, parents are still driven to use these methods instead of vaccinating their children.

Assuming, then, that they themselves know that these methods are dangerous, what is it about vaccinations that drives them to these extremes?

Parents that were interviewed by ‘Last Week Tonight’ presented several concerns they had regarding vaccinations – including the number of vaccinations given, the sheer amount of information that exists, as well as the schedule that they are expected to follow. Beyond this, there is also the concern that their children are simply being injected with a needle full of ‘science juice’ – without any elaboration as to what a vaccination actually is. A very simple breakdown of a vaccination, according to the WHO, is that it’s a weakened or dead, essentially harmless, form of a microorganism that activates the body’s immune response. As the immune response is activated, the harmless version of the microorganism is destroyed, and the body can remember how to fight and destroy it, so that if it encounters a ‘live’ version of the microorganism in the future, it’s able to recognise and destroy it quickly and easily. So yes, it is ‘science juice’, but it’s good science juice.

So how does good science-juice that protects most people from harm (though there are certain people who are unable to receive vaccinations) become such a taboo topic? While certain concerns are entirely understandable and valid – such as those regarding pharmaceutical companies – most concerns about vaccinations themselves, including their safety, are less so. As such, no discussion about vaccines is complete without the mention of the ‘do vaccines cause autism’ can of worms. Long story short – no, vaccines do not cause autism. As John Oliver explained, this idea is one that was presented in a paper by Andrew Wakefield, a ‘used-to-be-a-doctor’, who supposedly found a link between the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism – using 12 participants and falsified data. Since this claim was made, the original paper was retracted, and the authors were found guilty of ethical violations, fraud and scientific misrepresentation. Dozens of studies, including epidemiological studies, have been conducted to refute their claim regardless, and no link has been found.

From here, the other major concern in the video is the schedule on which vaccines are given. Many parents – including, apparently, Donald Trump – believe that too many vaccinations are given to children too soon along the current schedule. Some doctors, including one interviewed in the video named Doctor Bob Sears, also agree with this ‘middle ground’ approach – which does sound sensible, except for the fact that it leaves children at risk of being exposed to certain diseases for longer. One of the examples that John Oliver provides from this approach includes the recommendation that measles vaccine – the MMR vaccine discussed earlier – can be left until a child is ten years of age. In Australia, the MMR vaccine is given at 12 months of age, and the MMRV (measles-mumps-rubella-varicella) vaccine is given at 18 months of age, which is similar to the US. The reason that this vaccination is given at that point, and why Dr. Sears’ recommendation may be considered absurd, is that though measles may not be particularly harmful for adults, it is dangerous in young children. This is because it can lead to significant complications, as explained by the Department of Health, as 1 in 15 children develop pneumonia, and 1 in 1,000 develop encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Of those that develop encephalitis, 1 in 10 will die, and up to 4 in 10 will be left with permanent brain damage. If these statistics sound scary, that’s because they are – and why vaccination schedules do not exist for the parents’ convenience, but rather for their children’s lives.

Doctor Sears, who has written a book on the topic of spacing out vaccines, has also made statements such as ‘vaccines don’t cause autism, except when they do’. The best response that I can provide to this is not my own, as I think John Oliver put it best – ‘opportunistic quacks writing books that fan the flames of people’s unfounded fears don’t cause a legitimate public health hazard – except when they do’. John Oliver’s presentation of the controversy surrounding vaccinations, and why most concerns are not founded in logic, and are instead irrational, though understandable, emotional responses of parents, is one that is worth watching and showing to anyone who may doubt the necessity of vaccinations.


Brana Godic