The New York Times recently broke the news that, largely because of a new anti-vaccine movement spreading across the country, cases of measles have reached a 20-year high. The article reported that 85 percent of this year’s cases were in people not vaccinated because of religious, philosophical or personal objections. Fear that misinformation could result in undoing the progress we have made against diseases like measles have been realized.
This piece, authored by Sally Greenberg, originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
A Sept. 14, 1961 New York Times headlineboldly proclaimed "Measles Vaccine Effective In Test, Injections With Live Virus Protect 100 Per Cent of Children in Epidemics." Before the measles vaccine, this was a disease that infected nearly every child in America by the age of 15, killing up to 500 children a year and hospitalizing an estimated 48,000 more across the country. The measles vaccine, safe and cost-effective, was a marvel of modern science. Spread by coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact, measles has no cure or treatment and is highly contagious.
That is what makes vaccination so essential. Parents who choose not to vaccinate endanger their children -- one in five children who contract the disease will be hospitalized -- and also threaten the health of their peers, their families, and their communities. Though whether to vaccinate or not is framed as "personal choice," the fact is that this choice has major health repercussions. The anti-vaccination movement is not wed to science but rather a false narrative based on... nothing.
Vaccine misinformation began with a 1998 report, published in the medical journalThe Lancet, which claimed to establish a link between vaccines and autism. The study has since been discredited, disproved, and retracted. However, a recent survey commissioned by the National Consumers League (NCL) found that 33 percent of parents with children 18 and younger continue to believe "vaccinations can cause autism."
The good news is that an overwhelming majority of adults (87 percent) support mandatory vaccinations for school-aged children.
The body of evidence supporting the effectiveness and safety of vaccine use is extensive. After nearly 40 years of measles vaccinations, in 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared measles "eliminated." The term "eliminated" means that there was no reported disease transmission for a continuous 12-month period. Yet, in 2013 the CDC reported 189 cases of measles, and the pace of infection continues.
In California alone, a state where parents can choose not to vaccinate their children based on "personal belief" exemptions, we've seen 51 cases of measles reported so far in 2014. In the same period last year, there were only four cases reported in California, and there have not been more than 40 cases reported in the state since 2000. In the last decade, the rates of unvaccinated children in California have increased at an alarming pace. In 2007, an estimated 1.4 percent of kindergarteners were not vaccinated; by the beginning of the 2013 that number had more than doubled to 3.1 percent.
We must not allow anti-vaccination rhetoric to undermine these critically-important methods for keeping children and adults safe from illness or disease. A century ago, parents lived in fear of losing a child, or multiple children, to typhoid, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, small pox, whooping cough, mumps, and other diseases for which we today have vaccinations. Many of us grew up with little or no fear of death or impairment from these diseases. While it is true that no vaccine or drug, aspirin included, is 100 percent safe, the overall good these medications provide to the health of our population -- by a huge magnitude -- outweighs the tiny number of those who experience adverse reactions. Absent a valid religious belief or health concern, especially in the case of children, vaccinations are our moral imperative.