There are several parts of the world where vaccine preventable illness and death have always existed. These occur largely in third world countries where access is limited and living conditions which create the perfect environment for disease can spread quickly. However, in developed nations, the overwhelming majority of the resurgence of these diseases can be linked to one group of people: parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.
By 2008, it had been ten years since the paper by Andrew Wakefield had been published claiming a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, which inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella. It had been eight years since measles had been considered eliminated. It would be another three years before his study and the ensuing report would be publicly debunked. The journal that published the paper retracted it amid claims that the study was fraudulent, done at the behest of lawyers wanting to sue drug companies and the fact that the results were never replicated in further studies. By the time a series of articles regarding the scandal was published in the British medical journal BMJ in 2011, the outbreak of diseases like measles had reached epidemic proportions worldwide.
This was happening because parents believed Wakefield’s research and vaccinations had dropped by 20 percent.
Parents weren’t just refusing the MMR vaccine. They were forgoing whooping cough and chicken pox vaccines, too. Some refused all of the required vaccinations, including the long eradicated polio vaccine. Pertussis, or whooping cough, a disease which consists of a long term, persistent and painful cough, has been an epidemic in the US since 2010, peaking in 2012 with more than 40,000 reported cases. Whooping cough is the leading cause of vaccine preventable deaths worldwide, with most deaths occurring in infants under the age of one.
The California Department of Health releases an annual report of immunization levels in the schools. Overall, the state has an over 90 percent immunization rate for the six required vaccinations, with many areas of the state reporting 100 percent levels. The overall rate was 89 percent. When a significant portion of the population is immunized, it makes it difficult for contagious disease to spread. Public health officials consider community immunity (also known as “herd” immunity) reached when levels reach at least 80-90 percent, though the rate varies depending on the disease. This protects those in the community that can’t have certain immunizations, such as pregnant women, infants, or those with medical conditions.
Upon a closer look, the data reveals some significant differences in who is vaccinating. Children in Head Start, the preschool program for low income families, had a 96 percent immunization rate. Public schools overall were at 91 percent. However, children in private schools had a significantly lower rate of 86 percent. When broken out by county, there were several pockets of the state in which the vaccination rate was well below the 80 percent level, with some barely over 60 percent. The areas that reported the lowest vaccination levels were overwhelmingly affluent, middle class and predominately white.
Like the private schools, these areas also had the highest number of exemptions due to personal beliefs.
All schools require immunizations prior to enrollment. Exemptions are made for medical conditions, such as those with compromised immune systems and for religious traditions, as many religions are against certain types of medical care. However, many states allow for “personal belief exemptions” in which a family can simply choose not to vaccinate without explanation.
It’s not just the fear of the now debunked autism link that has increased the prevalence of these personal exemptions. There is a whole community of anti-vaccination believers who point to things like government conspiracies or a for profit drug industry that needs to peddle vaccines to keep their bottom line in the black. Some point to toxins in the vaccines, and believe that they do more harm than good.
The one common theme in all of these theories is none of it is based on science.
The vaccines used today have been around for decades and went through several years of research and studies before being used widely. Vaccines are credited with virtually eradicating diseases, such as polio, from the globe. Even though many vaccines are not 100 percent full proof and require updates, in the small chance that vaccinated person would contract the disease the reaction would be much less severe and, most importantly, it would most likely not be fatal.
Today, there are epidemic outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough all around the world. Just in the last few months, outbreaks of measles have occurred in New York and Massachusetts. People are being exposed to the extremely contagious disease in supermarkets, restaurants and hospitals. Ohio has reported 23 cases of mumps. My home state of California is still battling several cases of whooping cough, as well as a jump in measles.
We have a public health crisis on our hands — and it’s only March.
Our nation prides itself at being a nation of personal freedoms. However, with freedom also comes responsibility. While these often well meaning parents believe they are doing what is right for their child, they also have to keep in mind what is right for their community. Every time their unvaccinated child goes out into the world, they risk contracting a disease which is entirely preventable. If they give their child the incredible opportunity to go outside of the United States, they put their child, their family, their community and the people in the other country at risk by being a possible conduit to the spread of an infectious disease. Cases of infection have increased not just in developed nations, but also in those in nations already plagued with epidemic levels of vaccine preventable diseases.
This is not just hyperbole. The majority of these outbreaks can be linked to those who were not vaccinated by choice and who had traveled to nations where the risk of contagion was high.
There is now discussion to eliminate, or at least highly restrict, personal belief exemptions for vaccinations. More and more doctors are refusing to see children from families that refuse to vaccinate. Many are also refusing to sign exemption forms unless there is a true medical need. In the meantime, schools and public health officials are stepping up education campaigns in their communities. In some areas, talk of massive vaccine campaigns are also being discussed, much like during the 1950s when the polio vaccine was first introduced.
Many of these diseases start off as an isolated case. They can weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to other communicable diseases. There have been reported cases of tetanus, meningitis, chicken pox and even typhoid fever in the United States in recent years.
While isolated incidences, there were no reported cases of these diseases in the United States prior to 2010, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.