Once upon a time vaccines were welcomed as life-savers. Today, some parents would rather let their children get sick than expose them to vaccines.
In 1952 there were 57,879 cases of paralytic polio in the United States. Of these, 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with some form of paralysis, most of these children. According to a 2009 PBS documentary, America’s greatest fear at that time, apart from an Atomic bomb, was polio.
In 1957, Jonas Salk introduced his polio vaccine. By 1961, just four years later, the number of polio cases was 1,312 – a 98% reduction. Today the number is zero. In the 1950s, before the introduction of the measles vaccine, 3 million to 4 million Americans contracted the disease each year and 48,000 were hospitalized. In 2012 there were just 55 cases.
But suddenly things are changing. Recent outbreaks of measles in New York City and Orange County, California; 70 cases of measles attributed to Disneyland visits since December; numerous cases of whooping cough throughout California and mumps outbreaks in communities around Ohio State University in Columbus have been reported. It seems the hard-learned lessons of the 1950s that vaccines are safe and effective means for preventing illness have been unlearned.
Jeffrey Kluger, writer for Time, calls attention to this phenomenon in a recent article called Who’s Afraid of a Little Vaccine? Strangely, Kluger points out the outbreaks seem to follow a geographical pattern. Most of them have occurred in blue states – those heavily influenced by liberal orthodoxy. The anti-vaccination movement is primarily one of well-educated and comparatively affluent individuals who believe themselves to be well informed. Except they are not.
Vaccine infographic created by Leon Farrant
The Lancet Scare
In 1998, a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published an article in the respected medical journal The Lancet. Wakefield did intestinal biopsies on 12 children with intestinal symptoms and developmental disorders, 10 of whom were autistic, and found intestinal inflammation. The parents of 8 of the autistic children believed their symptoms began after receiving the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The published paper clearly said, “We did not find an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue.”
However, despite this disclaimer in the paper, Wakefield held a press conference to say the MMR vaccine probably caused autism and he recommended stopping MMR vaccinations. Instead, he recommended giving the vaccinations separately at intervals of a year or more.
Wakefield’s analysis was thoroughly discredited later and he was found to have done questionable research on other subjects as well. The Lancet retracted his original paper. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the original paper as “fatally flawed” and apologized for publishing it. Ten of the original 12 co-authors published a retraction stating:
“We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between the vaccine and autism, as the data were insufficient. However, the possibility of a link was raised, and consequent events have had major implications for public health. In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon these findings in the paper, according to precedent.”
Harriet Hall, M.D., writing for The Skeptic, goes on to explain:
“Attempts to replicate Wakefield’s study all failed. Other studies showed that the detection of measles virus was no greater in autistics, that the rate of intestinal disease was no greater in autistics, that there was no correlation between MMR and autism onset, and that there was no correlation between MMR and autism, period.”
Though Wakefield’s credibility has been thoroughly debunked, his fraudulent research has raised up a whole generation of parents who still believe in his findings. Their cause has been inflamed by celebrities such as Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, and her comedian partner Jim Carrey, who have an autistic child. Their emotional appeals to other parents have misinformed many who desperately want to prevent their own children from suffering this debilitating disease.
When vaccination rates are high, those in the community who cannot be vaccinated, because of a demonstrable medical condition, are protected. This is called “herd immunity.” To establish herd immunity, vaccination rates must be very high – up to 95% or better. In the U.S. at large, the numbers are pretty good, with close to 95% of incoming kindergartners in compliance with vaccine guidelines, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey.
However, vaccination rates vary widely from state to state. Mississippi leads the nation with 99.9% for MMR and diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT). But others are not so good; California just 92.7% (MMR) and 92.5% (DPT). Colorado is the worst in the nation at 85.7% and 82.9%.
Strangely, there are great variations in vaccinations within states, based on the type of schools children attend. In New York City the public schools vaccinate 98% of all children. But a recent survey of 245 private schools reveals half of them are below 90% and 37 of them are below 70%. Nine schools fall in a range from 41% down to 18.4%. This makes private schools much more dangerous than public schools.
The situation is similar in Ohio. Kluger points out that not all of Columbus has turned against vaccines; just the Clintonville community, an upscale neighborhood where many of the university professors live. According to Misti Crane, reporter for the Columbus Dispatch: “They are dual-income and college educated. It’s a community of ‘Hey, I know better.’” Unfortunately, they don’t know better and they are putting not only their own children at risk, but potentially everyone else’s, too.
The recent outbreak of mumps in Ohio is such an example. The outbreak has led to 483 cases of infection in 2014 as of the last week of August. Mumps is particularly difficult to control since the vaccine is only 80 to 90% effective. That means herd immunity must be especially high. But anti-vaccine activists have misused this information, claiming 97% of those with the disease were previously vaccinated. Columbus deputy health commissioner Mysheika Williams Roberts refutes this claim saying their own survey found only 42% confirmed vaccination.
What accounts for the preponderance of anti-vaccine activists in liberal communities? Kluger says many theories abound, but one of the most persuasive is the master-of-the-universe phenomenon. The wealthier you are and the higher your education level, the more you lose sight of the randomness of misfortune and come to believe you can control variables and eliminate risk.
“When people achieve a certain status, they think they’re invincible,” says Roberts. “They think it will never happen to them, and if it does, they’ll have the resources to deal with it.”
Kluger says this is true even of upscale people who are trained in science. Dr. Jane Rosini, a pediatrician in a practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, recalls struggling to convince one father, a biologist, that vaccines are safe and effective.
“He said he thought he knew better,” she says. “People are trying to be the ultimate parents. Every piece of clothing and food is thought out, and vaccines fall into that category.”
Perhaps as a result of these attitudes, children without vaccinations are mostly white and come from affluent families. According to the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, 57.3 percent are boys and 42.7 percent are girls. The ethnic breakdown of unvaccinated children is as follows:
- 82 % White
- 9.3 % Black
- 6.8 % Hispanic
- 2 % Asian
Persuading the Vaccine Avoiders
The anti-vaccine crowd is stubborn, buoyed by their perceived superiority due to higher education and upper-class status. But increased education about the complications of diseases such as mumps have persuaded some. Mumps can cause deafness, orchitis and oophoritis (inflammation of the testes or ovaries) and that can lead to sterility.
Measles is not an innocuous disease, either. Before 1963, when the measles vaccine became available in the U. S., there were more than 500,000 reported measles cases every year, according to the CDC. On average, 432 cases a year resulted in death. By the year 2000 the number of cases had dwindled to 86 and the number of deaths zero.
But the disease is making a comeback in 2014 with 644 cases reported. Parents should be aware that the risk of serious neurological disease following vaccination is one in 365,000 doses – but the risk of death with the disease is one or two in just 1,000.
Legislation can also be effective. All 50 states have laws that require kids to be in compliance with vaccine guidelines before attending public schools, and 49 of 50 extend those rules to day-care centers. Not surprisingly, the lone exception is the state of Ohio – where the mumps outbreak occurred. However, compliance does not necessarily mean children have been vaccinated. Parents may “opt-out” with medical waivers or waivers for religious reasons. Some, including Ohio, have an “opt-out” clause for “philosophical reasons.”
Schools are fighting back by barring unvaccinated children from school activities such as dances and sports participation. Parents are becoming pariahs in their communities as others seek to protect their own children from these anti-vaccine activists. Many doctors view this parent-to-parent pressure as the most effective means for persuading those who persist in preventing vaccination of their children.
Dr. Marc Siegel, NYU professor of medicine and a Fox News medical correspondent, calls attention to this issue in a Wall Street Journal column called Fear Measles, Not Vaccines. Siegel summarizes the issue:
“Medicine involves cost-benefit analysis, and it is clear that the benefits of the MMR vaccine far exceed the costs. The bottom line: Not vaccinating children invites a measles resurgence.”
Politicians are weighing in on this important issue as the 2016 presidential campaign gets under way. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stumbled out of the gate with a confusing response that said “parents need to have some measure of choice” in vaccinations. He added that “not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told a radio host that most vaccines “ought to be voluntary“. President Obama, however, showed much greater clarity. He said, “You should get your kids vaccinated. . . .There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.” Now if we could just get as clear a message on his foreign policy. . . .