Vaccinations: A Public Concern, Not a Personal Choice
Measles was supposedly eliminated in the United States 15 years ago with the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine, but an outbreak of measles last month in Disneyland proves otherwise. The disease once killed 450 children each year and disabled even more, yet fortunately it has been under control for over decade. A growing anti-vaccine movement and lack of thorough understanding of measles has resulted in a recent comeback, and now the disease is spreading.
The anti-vaccine movement was driven by a 1998 study in a British medical journal that associated the MMR vaccine with autism. The study has since been meticulously discredited, and the researcher that published the study was stripped of his medical degree. But, for some conspiracy theorists, the fear remains. Some people are now also afraid of other vaccines as well.
As of March this year, 173 measles cases have been reported in the US, compared with 189 total cases last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is concerned with the outbreak and issued a health advisory on January 23, following the Disneyland incident in California. The organization noted of the 52 measles cases resulting from the outbreak, 28 had been in unvaccinated people. With more and more people avoiding immunization, consequences can affect the American community at large.
The number of cases might sound small, but they may be only the beginning of a threatening trend. Dr. Paul A. Offit, a Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explains that vaccinations are effective at wiping out contagious diseases only when nearly the whole community joins in, called a “herd immunity.” This is proven with diseases such as polio, smallpox and for the most part measles, which had been more rare up until now. With the majority of the population immune to the disease, the more vulnerable individuals in society are protected, such as those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or very young children and infants. When some refuse vaccinations yet still hope to reap the benefits of society, immunity breaks down and everyone is more vulnerable. Policymakers need to address this issue by barring unvaccinated children from public schools and by tightening rules that allow parents to opt out of vaccinations.
According to Dr. Offit the current immunization rates in the US are good - in the high 80 percent, low 90 percent range, but what is dangerous is that certain districts or communities are sadly under-vaccinated and consequently have been the hosts of recent outbreaks. The measles vaccine has proved itself to be very effective for an especially contagious virus, but when communities are avoiding vaccinations more often public health is, unfortunately, compromised.
What might happen if more Americans stopped getting vaccinated? When immunity among the nation starts to diminish and more and more people avoid vaccination, the disease will spread quickly. A 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego shows exactly how many can be put at risk by the egocentric decisions of a few. One 7-year-old whose parents left intentionally unvaccinated spread the disease to 11 other unvaccinated children. In less than a week, the infected individuals exposed more than 800 other people to the disease through school, swimming lessons, grocery shopping and on a flight to Hawaii. The disease has proven to be extremely contagious and clearly makes vaccinations a public concern.
Not surprisingly, the Disneyland outbreak occurred in California, which has some of the most liberal opt out policies in the nation. In California, exemptions are given not only for religious reasons, but even personal philosophical reasons. The Los Angeles Times reports more than 13,000 California kindergarten students actually have waivers due to their parents personal’ beliefs, which California allows parents to do. Ironically, on the other end, the strictest standards are in Mississippi; despite the state’s politically conservative reputation citizens cannot get either personal or even religious exemptions. Unfortunately, some politicians have also supported the anti-vax movement, including prominent Republicans such as Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Rand Paul. New Jersey governor and potential 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie has also expressed some support for personal choice in the matter, though he admits to his children having been vaccinated. The attitudes of these states and politicians, which span both sides of the aisle, are putting our public health at risk.
Opt out policies have to be tightened to protect communities. Opposition is linked to only one small risk, which the CDC states involves mild fever and a rash that does not last long for healthy individuals. Those who refuse to take this risk not only inflict the consequences on themselves, they put the lives of anyone they come in contact with in danger.