Soon after the measles outbreak originating in Disneyland became widely publicized in the media, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a “commentary” titled: “I Don’t Vaccinate My Child Because It’s My Right To Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back.” Yes, The Onion’s content is meant to be humorous and, as Wikipedia describes it, “surreal or alarming.” And yet, this “commentary” quite accurately captures not only the anti-vaccination parent attitude, but also the extremely dangerous outcomes of their actions.
I am a lawyer trained in global health law—I work at the intersection of public health and the law. It was not until I was at Georgetown Law pursuing the masters in laws (LL.M.) in Global Health Law that I came to appreciate the value of vaccines and to understand that we are part of a population, and that our actions can have wide implications for the health of others. The measles outbreak could have easily been prevented. The disease was eradicated in the United States in 2000 through a widespread vaccination campaign, but while eliminated, the unvaccinated still run the risk of contracting the disease from anyone entering the country who is infected. The current measles outbreak has grown to 95 cases across California, Michigan, Arizona, Utah, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Nebraska, and even Mexico.
The current Ebola epidemic could not be a better lesson for us all, but for some reason, the lesson is lost among those refusing to immunize their children. The math just does not add up. So, what exactly drives a public to aggressively demand for the quarantining of health care workers coming back from Ebola-stricken countries and to, at the same time, fail to impose stricter regulation of anti-vaccination parents and their children, such as schools and daycare centers requiring that all children be immunized?
Let us get some facts straight:
- Measles is far more contagious than Ebola. It is spread through coughing and sneezing, and it “can live for up to two hours on a surface or in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed.” We should be more afraid of contracting this disease than Ebola.
- Measles can lead to pneumonia, brain damage, hearing loss, and death.
- The group most at risk are young children who are unvaccinated and those whose immune system is compromised.
- 1 out of 20 children with measles will develop pneumonia, “the most common cause of death from measles in young children”.
- 1 out of every 1,000 children who get measles “will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or mentally retarded.”
- 1 to 2 out of every 1,000 children who get measles will die from the disease.
Many anti-vaccination parents, through personal anecdotes, continue to try to link the Mumps, Measles, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to their children later developing autism. WHO has expressly debunked this connection:
“Concerns about a possible link between vaccination with MMR and autism were raised in the late 1990s, following publication of studies claiming an association between natural and vaccine strains of measles virus and inflammatory bowel diseases, and separately, MMR vaccine, bowel disease and autism. WHO, on the recommendation of [Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS)], commissioned a literature review by an independent researcher of the risk of autism associated with MMR vaccine; the outcome of the review was presented to GACVS for its consideration.
“Eleven epidemiological studies … were reviewed in detail, taking into consideration study design … and limitations. The review concluded that existing studies do not show evidence of an association between the risk of autism or autistic disorders and MMR vaccine.
“Based on the extensive review presented, GACVS concluded that no evidence exists of a causal association between MMR vaccine and autism or autistic disorders. The Committee believes the matter is likely to be clarified by a better understanding of the causes of autism. GACVS also concluded that there is no evidence to support the routine use of monovalent measles, mumps and rubella vaccines over the combined vaccine, a strategy which would put children at increased risk of incomplete immunization…”
The data is clear: vaccines are safe, including the measles vaccine.
Moreover, according to WHO:
- Prior to the widespread measles campaign in 1980, 2.6 million people died per year from measles. Today, 400,000 still die from it.
- The disease is still common in developing countries, particularly those in Africa and Asia.
- Measles are particularly a threat in countries “experiencing or recovering from a natural disaster or conflict” and those with a weak public health infrastructure.
- The number of deaths from measles dropped by 75% by 2013 as a result of the “global push to improve vaccine coverage.” 15.6 million deaths from measles were prevented as efforts carried out with the support of the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&R Initiative) .
The irony is that, in developing countries, inadequate access to vaccines is more likely to keep a child from being vaccinated than the refusal of the parent to vaccinate the child. So, while parents in these countries are willing to do whatever it takes to vaccinate their children from this dangerous disease, parents like those in Orange County (who have been described by the media as ‘wealthy and well-educated’) feel privileged enough to refuse them, to blindly rely on bad science, and not only put their own children at risk of contracting the disease, but also other children and individuals whose immune systems are compromised.
The libertarian roots of this country is blinding us from our obligation to protect our children and their best interests, fundamentally, their health and lives. Children are one of most vulnerable groups in society and we owe it to them to do whatever it takes to protect them. Part of that obligation is to fully educate ourselves about how vaccines actually work and the benefits behind them—and with reliable and strong scientific data.
Also, let us remember that the “anti-vaxxer movement” is a vociferous but small group of people. Let us also remember that there is a tremendously much larger group of parents who get it—many whose children are unfortunately now experiencing the consequences of the smaller group’s actions. This larger group is backed by an army of scientists, doctors, public health professionals, global health lawyers, government, international health organizations, NGOs, etc. It is time for this group’s voice to be heard—for the sake of everyone’s children.