What we’ve learned throughout this time is that vaccines are the most successful and cost-effective public health tools we can employ to save lives, particularly among the world’s children. Vaccines are responsible for preventing more than 2 million deaths each year. Complacency or hesitancy about vaccination, however, can cause diseases previously thought to be eliminated to reemerge. In the aftermath of the Wakefield study we saw the reemergence of measles, which became endemic in England and Wales in 1998.
Perhaps the silence within our community occurred because the repudiation of the Wakefield claims seemed so obvious to us. We knew that when it comes to the link between vaccines and autism, the science has never wavered—there simply is no proven connection. But we need to appreciate how easily fraudulent or suspect science can influence public perceptions and political support. When “junk science” has the power to drown out the evidence, we have to use our voices to keep the focus on the real science. After 13 years, it seems that vaccines are finally vindicated. This important moment certainly calls for celebration, but also for reflection. One man’s fraudulent assertions in a respected medical journal led to a flurry of needless infections and deaths, not to mention a black eye on one of the world’s most successful public health interventions. While we hope that such a tragedy never happens again, we need to be ready for it if it does. Silence is no longer an option.