By: Thomas Aufiero, MD, Chief Medical Officer, St. James Healthcare
The decisions we make have natural consequences. It’s true for each of us as individuals and true on a greater scale for us as a society.
Recently the news has been full of reports about the measles outbreak in Washington, Montana's neighbor to the west. This isn't the first such report; in 2015 a multi-state
measles outbreak was linked to a California amusement park. Last year alone the U.S. experienced 17 outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cause of these outbreaks is at least in part to the growing number of parents (sometimes referred to as "anti-vaxxers") who are opting not to have their children inoculated against measles and other preventable diseases.
The measles vaccine was introduced in the mid-1960s. Before it became available, it killed over 2 million children worldwide every year. The CDC reports that before the vaccine was made available, 50,000 people across the U.S. were hospitalized with measles, with 400+ dying from it annually. In 2017, the World Health Organization reported that globally more than 100,000 children died from measles because they were not vaccinated.
The idea of watching your child squirm and cry as they receive a vaccine isn’t easy for any parent. It’s stressful for you both. All of us in healthcare understand it—as many of us are parents too. It is likewise a natural parental instinct to question the idea of injecting a foreign body (the vaccine) into their child’s body.
While recognizing that parents want to do what’s best for their children, the fact remains that many may not truly understand the realities of measles, also known as rubeola. It is
more than a simple rash. This highly contagious, fast-spreading virus can lead to pneumonia, severe diarrhea and dehydration, encephalitis, deafness, blindness, potential intellectual disability, and even death. Nearly 1 in 4 people who get measles will end up hospitalized… all because of a disease that was declared eliminated in 2000 thanks to a proven and effective vaccine.
In our community, most parents choose to vaccinate their children against measles and other preventable diseases. More and more common, however, are those individuals who are opting not to vaccinate because of anecdotes found online claiming that there is a link between vaccination and autism, paralysis and even death.
There is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism or the other problems championed by the anti-vax movement. One of the most commonly cited sources, a paper published by Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues, has not only been proven as false but also retracted by its authors.
You may have seen a post circulating on social media wherein a mother of a three-year-old asked how she could protect her unvaccinated 3-year-old from contracting the measles. To say that the backlash was fast and stinging is an understatement, with people across the world stating that the best protection against the measles is to have the child vaccinated. They were right.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the MMR vaccine, which protects not only against measles but also mumps and rubella, is over 95% effective after two doses. It is likewise important to note that while parents do have a right not to have their children vaccinated, others have no such choice. Their children, due to compromised immune systems, cannot receive many of the immunizations which healthy children easily tolerate. Thus, these children are essentially at the mercy of their peers, who may inadvertently spread this and other life-threatening viruses because their parents choose not to vaccinate them.