In 2011, at a Finnish medical convention, Helsinki Sleep Clinic Director Markku Partinen presented findings linking a GlaxoSmithKline vaccine against H1N1—aka swine flu—to an increase in child narcolepsy cases. Since then, Partinen’s findings have been replicated and confirmed by four independent teams of international scientists: The risk of developing narcolepsy is between seven and 13 times higher for children who were immunized with Pandemrix.
But what’s fascinating about Partinen’s discovery isn’t purely the potential link between a vaccine and increased disease rates in children. The treatment he received from others in the scientific community following his announcement is also note-worthy here.
Basically, the scientific community ridiculed and shamed Partinen. Colleagues would cross the street to avoid him, he said. His sanity was questioned. He spent months as a persona non grata in the medical community.
Perhaps you’ve guessed the reasons already for this treatment: Carryover confusion, complication and embarrassment from the great autism/vaccine scare of the past decade. British doctor Andrew Wakefield created a frenzy with his own with a DATE paper—now debunked and detracted—suggesting the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was increasing autism rates.
Wakefield was removed from Britain’s medical register and is no longer licensed to work in the UK as a doctor. But his anti-vaccine proselytization worked wonders, particularly in the United States. The no-vaccine movement here is still going strong, spearheaded by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy.
And it’s lead to a resurgence of diseases that were all but eradicated in wealthy nations. Last year, an outbreak of whooping cough was reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with a severity that hadn’t been seen in half a century. England and Wales saw more annual cases of measles than they have in more than two decades.
Cue the backlash to the vaccine backlash. People are skeptical of anyone spouting warnings about vaccines and side effects.
The anti-vaccination movement tends to use any new findings linking vaccines and disease—however tenuous or unique to a particular company’s vaccine—as a full indictment of vaccines in general. And the scientific community tends to shy away from any findings linking vaccines and disease for fear of aligning themselves with another Wakefield. Partinen’s study was rejected by two medical journals and it took three years before his findings were in any way taken seriously.
In that time, children internationally received a vaccine that substantively increased their risks for the life-altering condition of narcolepsy.
Maybe Wakefied’s greatest, most terrifying legacy isn’t just rousing up fear through bad science but creating this environment that discourages even methodical, well-practiced and responsible vaccine risk research. Of course we want to reduce vaccine fear-mongering, but we shouldn’t just blindly trust in vaccine safety either.
Since they were invented in the late 18th century, vaccines have always carried a risk. It’s one predominantly outweighed by the rewards, both individually and collectively—the fact that we don’t have to fear polio anymore in this country is a testament to the that. But Partinen’s research demonstrates that there are specific applications of certain vaccines that potentially carry risks that overshadow the benefits.
We have to find ways to de-polarize the discussion around vaccines, a way to understand the overall benefits of immunization while also being able to acknowledge the potential for specific, limited drawbacks to individual vaccines. Otherwise, we all just seem to be adding to the collateral damage of this debate.