Most of the 400 anti-vaccine activists who took part in a study published earlier this week believe two of the most controversial supplements are effective as boosters of the MMR vaccine, according to the report’s lead author.
“Most of those who were involved in our study thought vitamin D and ginger were helpful boosters and that this could be reduced use of [the MMR vaccine] by swapping vitamin D and ginger for it,” said Olga Fontein, professor of paediatrics at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “We had no questions about the size of the benefits so far as actual cases, but there were ‘wouldn’t it be better if vitamin D and ginger weren’t in the vaccine?’, so that’s where we need more research.”
She noted that the conclusion from the study, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, was based on a total of 1,519 children in the Netherlands and was simply one survey carried out in 2014 by the International Vaccine Adherence Network and the All Age Foundation – neither of which are affiliated with the World Health Organisation or the GAVI Alliance, the organisation set up by the G8 nations to assist poorer countries in immunising their citizens against vaccine-preventable diseases.
Among those who responded to the survey, 88% felt vitamin D could help boost immunity to measles, and 72% felt ginger could help raise immunity to other vaccine-preventable diseases. Fontein stressed that these reactions are “not surprising” since “these are two of the most common supplements that are used on the Dutch population”.
The MMR vaccine was first given to babies from the age of two months as part of a routine childhood immunisation schedule. As of 2015, the number of cases of measles in the UK had fallen sharply to 117. But anti-vaccination groups became active amid concerns that the MMR vaccine can cause autism, both because of the links – first falsely perpetuated by a single disgraced American doctor – and in the post-truth climate in which conspiracy theories can be treated with as much credibility as other science.
After major studies examined this line of thought – including one published in the Lancet in 2007 and reconfirmed in 2011 – anti-vaccination lobby groups declared themselves the victims of a conspiracy to push vaccines against their will.
The evidence, they insisted, was clear: studies backing the MMR were far more susceptible to statistical error than anti-vaccination campaigns and research – including a 2017 review of more than 2,000 studies in the Lancet – established once and for all that there is no link between the vaccine and autism.
In response, parents began to insist on vaccinating their children with alternative vaccines, or no vaccines at all. The government responded by getting parents to put their arguments to the people, commissioning an inquiry into the rise of non-vaccination alongside evidence-based materials.
The resulting study is likely to give ammunition to both sides, with the anti-vaccination lobby raising the idea that any research linking vitamins and vitamin D can be used to justify ignoring the benefit of the vaccine and the scientists arguing that results based on so few adults, and on studies conducted by a group without formal qualifications, are therefore unsound.
Fontein acknowledged that there was much to be worried about as anti-vaccination campaigners changed the way in which they approach the topic.
“One of the weaknesses of the previous research was that it was done on adults, and it was also done with a small sample size,” she said. “This was very important, because immunisations at the moment can be solved easily – you just have to produce the vaccine – but to raise the public level of concern, to say something like that, there needs to be a larger concern that the effect of vaccine protection is being overlooked, so that you use vaccines for the right reasons.”