Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: It’s a Small World, After All

Among children born between 1994 and 2013, vaccines have prevented more than 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 730,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, diseases such as whooping cough and measles, which are easily prevented with vaccinations, have made a comeback in the United States and Europe in recent years. Since 2006, large measles outbreaks have occurred in France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, among others. France, in particular, went from 40 cases in 2007 to 15,000 in 2011. The most recent measles outbreak linked to California’s Disneyland and has infected more than 100 people. Let’s be clear: Parents who chose not to vaccinate their children caused each of these outbreaks, and more are bound to happen and spread more widely as more children are left without inoculations.

Image courtesy of Joe Wolf, ©2015, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Joe Wolf, ©2015, some rights reserved.

At the Kaballah Children’s Academy in Beverly Hills, 57 per cent of children are not vaccinated against whooping cough. Similarly, at the Waldorf Early Childhood Center in Santa Monica, 68 per cent of children remain without the whooping cough vaccine. These immunization rates are on par with Chad and South Sudan. However, parents in these parts of California fail to get their children vaccinated not because of civil war, but because they ultimately do not fear the disease. When vaccines were first introduced in the first half of the 20th century, they were a godsend to the people who had seen first-hand the unabated outbreaks of diseases such as measles, mumps, whooping cough, and rubella. They knew whooping cough alone could kill more than 8,000 babies a year in the United States alone. When they became parents, they naturally vaccinated their children from the disease. But as more and more time passes, vaccination becomes more an act of faith from the parents who simply have not experienced the ravages of these diseases.

So when a study arose claiming vaccines might do more harm than good, parents are ignorant to the good they can do. So, naturally, they fear the harm more than they value the good. This study occurred in 1998 in the United Kingdom and claimed to show a link between vaccinations and autism. The study was soon found to have a number of flaws and was retracted by The Lancet, the medical journal that originally published it. Its author, Andrew Wakefield, has subsequently been stripped of his medical license.

The illegitimacy of the study neglected to influence its portrayal by the general media, however. In an effort to offer balance, as well as provide an entertaining debate for its viewers, news outlets played health experts who supported the vaccine against charismatic pundits who blamed their child’s autism on vaccinations. In 2002, The Sunday Times ran the headline: ‘The government has mounted campaigns to persuade parents the MMR jab is safe after some research linked it to autism and bowel disorders in children’. Other networks offered similarly alarmist coverage.

Despite plentiful scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine was safe, people saw two sides of the debate. Vaccine rates plummeted across Europe and the United States as a result. A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that between 1991 and 2006, the percentage of children in the US whose parents chose not to inoculate increased by six percent a year, resulting in a two-fold increase.

As a result, the world is beginning to see more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaring the US measles-free in 2000, as of 29 August 2014, about 600 cases of measles have been reported. Surprisingly, however, many parents are failing to see this rise of preventable diseases as a reason to vaccinate their children. In the US more than anywhere else, this has become a political issue, and the bunk study is reaching the spotlight yet again.

In the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak, US President Barack Obama called to mandate inoculations for all children. Some worry that this move could prompt those who dislike the President to embrace the anti-vaccine movement. Rand Paul, for instance, recently insinuated vaccines’ link to mental disorders, though he has recently rescinded his statement. Nevertheless, if the very one-sided debate of vaccines is introduced as political warfare headed into 2016, it may very well lead to a higher rate of vaccine-avoidance.

In short, vaccines have been a victim of time, media, and politics, and the danger posed to their absence is not only for the unvaccinated children, but especially for those who cannot receive vaccinations. The most relevant concept here is ‘herd immunity’, which is the idea that if a sizable portion of a society is immunized against a contagious disease, the opportunity for an outbreak is small. Experts say herd immunity is acquired when around 90 per cent of a community is vaccinated. The other ten per cent is mostly protected against the spread of the disease by the rest. This ten per cent is typically occupied by those who are receiving chemotherapy or immune-suppressive therapies for chronic diseases, or are simply too young. But as more people choose to leave their children unvaccinated, the percentage needed to acquire herd immunity drops and opens up a weak point in which an outbreak can occur.

This is truly a global issue for a number of reasons. Because most people in the US and Europe are so commonly mobile, disease can spread to other areas quite easily. In the case of the measles outbreak in Disneyland, it proved to be a small world, after all, as the disease spread to 14 states. Similar to the fear accompanied by the continuing Ebola outbreak, the fear of the cross-border spread of vaccine-preventable diseases in a truly global society can only increase if inoculation continues to be questioned. Indeed, we may soon find ourselves reliving our history on a global scale if we refuse to learn from it.

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