The recent outbreaks of measles in the United States hurts my scientific heart. And I say “heart” not because the way I regard vaccines is based on a feeling or what a Playboy Bunny said or a real estate mogul tweeted, but because there are children who are seriously ill who could have been protected.
My scientific brain that was put through the rigors of earning a Microbiology B.S. and an M.D. from the University of Maryland is not happy either. I’m not practicing medicine at this time, but I know vaccines are safe because I have read and evaluated the scientific research. It is not swayed by the hype that drives ratings sweeps and cranks up website pageviews. If the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine was a cartoon, many would draw it with a pitchfork and horns.
I understand that as an individual, it may seem like no big deal for YOU to skip immunizations for your kids or to alter the administration schedule. “It’s MY right. I’m just being safe.” Unfortunately, you are part of a community or as it is put in immunological terms, a “herd.”
It all comes down to herd immunity. When many people are immunized, it doesn’t leave a place for the diseases to “breed and live.” When the community at large is vaccinated and protected, this means that people who are not eligible to be vaccinated such as infants, pregnant women, and immunocompromised people also get some measure of protection from the disease because the collective “community immunity” doesn’t give it room to spread. This also means that even if a vaccine is not 100% effective, people are unlikely to get sick because the disease is just not around.
So if YOU decide not to vaccinate your kids in a community with high immunization rates, your children will probably be fine. They’re getting the benefits from your community’s responsible actions.
The problem comes when you “herd” yourself with other anti-vaccinators. You create a lovely pool for the disease to infect and spread as can be seen in New York City. We live in a global society and measles is still out there because of fear mongering and because OTHER COUNTRIES CAN’T AFFORD THE VACCINE.
And guess what? You’ve not only put your children at risk, but you’ve put those who can’t be vaccinated, as mentioned before, at risk also.
Oh, and one more thing, YOU may be at risk too. Up to five percent of children vaccinated fail to develop immunity and sometimes immunity can wane, but this is usually overcome by giving a second dose of MMR before entering school. However, the second dose policy was not implemented until 1989. Did you get that second dose?
The decision not to vaccinate seems to sprout like a fungus from the false beliefs that 1) vaccines cause autism and 2) that childhood illnesses are no big deal.
1. False Premise: Vaccines cause autism.
A few things first. I understand that scientific papers are hard to slug through. And not all research is created equal. Studies that are observational, do just that, observe what has already happened. These rely heavily on patient reporting.
This is a weaker study than the gold standard, randomized controlled trials, in which the subjects are randomly distributed into groups which are either subjected to the experimental procedure or which do not receive it and serve as controls. In this kind of study, there is less bias and it is easier to weed out coincidences.
Also, published research is not a proclamation of fact. It is a sharing of what has been discovered to advance science. It doesn’t mean it is flawless. “Discoveries” do not come from one paper. Multiple scientists must replicate and advance a finding before a real “Eureka!” moment is reached.
It’s easy to forget this when the press latches onto a concept like “MMR causes autism,” and pukes it from the rooftops to stir panic and fear because that keeps you coming back for more.
All of the MMR vaccine misinformation can be traced back to one paper. The link between this vaccine and autism was proposed by a British physician, Andrew Wakefield, in the Februrary 1998 issue of The Lancet. This finding has never been replicated by any other researchers. More importantly, it was discovered to be manufactured from fraudulent data and has been RETRACTED.
There were only twelve children in the observational study–this means that even if the findings were true, they really only provided a starting point for other research, not for conclusions. However, that hardly matters since the entire causal effect was based on what the parents reported as the length of time from the administration of the vaccine to onset of autism spectrum symptoms AND THAT DATA WAS FALSIFIED. The timelines of the children’s symptoms were misrepresented.
Even more damning was Wakefield’s conflict of interest. How could an article with such a small sample size and the title, Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, cause such a fervor? Wakefield had an agenda to advance because he was a paid consultant to attorneys representing parents with anti-vaccine lawsuits. The General Medical Council in the U.K. revoked Wakefield’s medical license because of his fraudulent report and unethical behavior.
What is atrocious is that it took until 2010 for that paper to be retracted and for Wakefield to lose his license. For over a decade the fires of misinformation have been fanned and stirred into a bonfire so raging that four years after it should be extinguished it is still smoldering.
And the target of controversy has also shifted. The original autism scapegoat was the MMR vaccine, but the blame game has subtly shifted to focus on the ethylmercury vaccine perservative, thimerosal. This shift was spurred more by activist and political groups than science. Regardless, thimerosal has been removed from vaccines, mostly since 2001.
My heart breaks for the parents who are just looking for answers for their children on the autism spectrum, but I seethe with anger over all of the money that has been diverted from worthwhile autism research to prove over and over again that vaccines are not linked to it. With the combined studies to date, millions of children have been studied and no link has been found.
2. False Premise: Childhood illnesses are no big deal.
In the United States, today’s parents mistakenly think that not vaccinating is the safer choice because they do not remember nor have ever seen the diseases. But these “childhood diseases” aren’t just spotty rashes or coughs. They can cause lasting disabilities and, at times, death. At the very least, they cause weeks of suffering and prolonged time off from work for caregivers. Because these are viral diseases, there is generally no specific treatment once they are contracted.
Here is a crash course on a few, but not all, preventable diseases.
Measles: Worldwide, it remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. Approximately 122, 000 people died from measles in 2012 – mostly children under the age of five. Some of the more serious side effects are blindness and encephalitis.
Mumps: The infections are usually mild but cause painful swelling of the salivary glands. Sometimes there is swelling of the pancreas and testicles (rarely, this can lead to infertility).
Rubella: It’s generally a mild disease in children; but the infection of pregnant women is dangerous because it can cause congenital rubella syndrome (a variety of birth defects) in developing babies.
Pertussis: Also known as whooping cough, it is most severe for young babies. About half of babies younger than 1 year of age who get it end up in the hospital, and a few even die from the disease. It can be pretty serious in adults too. The coughing can be so forceful, it can crack ribs. Pertussis is seeing a resurgence so check with your doctor to see if you need the Tdap vaccine as a booster. You may be due.
Chicken Pox: While the disease is usually mild, it can lead to pneumonia and swelling of the brain. Also, the chicken pox virus “embeds” in your nerve endings. You may get painful shingles infections later in life when the dormant virus re-emerges.
Polio: There was a time that every parent lived in fear of this disease. While it most often produced flu-like symptoms, it could also cause paralysis and death.
This is not a childhood disease, but it deserves an honorable mention.
Human Papilloma Virus: This virus causes cervical cancer. The vaccine reduces the risk of CANCER. That is amazing.
My oldest child was born in 1998 and was due for her first MMR vaccination in 1999, right when the hysteria was gaining momentum. My husband and I had her vaccinated. I had read Wakefield’s paper for myself and realized the flaws. Also a well performed study by Brent Miller was already published. He studied 498 children and could not find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Since that time, millions of kids have been studied and no links have been found. Please consider the weight of the evidence produced versus the fraud that was popularized when making decisions for your kids. You’re not just affecting yourself, but the health of the whole community.
For another great article on vaccinations read this one from Violent Metaphors.
Check out our books, please, “I Just Want to Be Alone” and “You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth.”
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By Ellen Williams Erin Dymowski