It starts with a little fever, progresses to a runny nose, and ends with a whopper of a rash. But this illness is preventable, was even declared “dead” in the United States in 2000, and was considered a third-world problem long after people stopped saying “third-world.” So why are measles and the equally preventable whooping cough making a comeback in some of the most affluent communities in America?
Measles took a sharp jump in 2011 with 220 cases reported in the United States, and 161 cases caused havoc in the U.S. last year. Blame it on the relative ease of opting out, but that’s only half of the story. A strong chorus of organizations like Focus Autism, a Shot of Truth, and even congressional voices are citing questionable medical research that tie vaccines to autism development.
One such voice, Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL), recently accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of unwillingness to fully explore the link between vaccinations and autism. According to Posey, the relationship between the CDC and big pharmaceutical companies is preventing the real story about vaccines from being heard.
Regardless, rampant misinformation has many well-meaning parents opting out of vaccines as a protective measure for their children. However, misinformation and the ease of opting out is not only dangerous to individuals; it is extremely compromising to community health. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease found that 95 percent of a community must be vaccinated to create “community immunity” or “herd immunity,” a bulwark against pandemic or epidemic outbreaks.
California, a state where “Personal Belief Exemptions” happen at the stroke of the parental pen, saw 9,120 cases of whooping cough, with 10 of those cases resulting in death in 2010. Like measles, whooping cough is preventable with vaccination, but the disease poses a huge threat to children who are still too young to receive the vaccine. According to the CDC’s 2014 recommended immunization schedule, vaccination should be given at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 15-18 months and between 4-6 years.
The shocking number of cases in California drew the research interest of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a study by the organization concluded that the resurgence of whooping cough was specifically attributed to “intentionally unvaccinated or under-vaccinated persons.”
Hollywood resident and actress, Amanda Peet, had a terrifying brush with whooping cough when her 8-month-old daughter contracted the disease and was severely ill for six weeks. It wasn’t that Peet didn’t take the necessary steps to protect her daughter; her young child was simply under-vaccinated with only two of the five recommended shots fulfilled.
The experience prompted Ms. Peet to get involved with an organization dedicated to global vaccine awareness called Shot at Life. According to Shot at Life, one child dies every 20 seconds from a vaccine-preventable disease. From a global perspective, inaccessibility of vaccines is a real problem, but the choice to remain unvaccinated borders on unconscionable.
Dr. John Temte, the Chair of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, studies vaccine-related attitudes and behaviors. His work in family medicine, as well as his studies, point to a two-fold problem with parents and a blasé medical community.
“Many parents haven’t a clue to the devastating potential of vaccine-preventable diseases. We have a full generation of physicians that are relatively naïve when it comes to measles, H. flu meningitis, rubella and even chickenpox,” says Temte. According to Temte, the interconnectedness of daily life is only raising the stakes for crisis when it comes to people opting out of vaccinations.
“Unvaccinated individuals have a 23-fold increased likelihood of contracting this disease. It isn’t whooping cough, per se, that’s the problem. It is the inadvertent transmission of highly vulnerable individuals (infants and the elderly) that yields the destructive force. We rarely know whether the person we pass on the street, ride with on the elevator or subway, or sit next to in the theater is immuno-compromised, or has an infant at home, or works with the highly vulnerable,” Temte explains.
If vulnerability or possibly damaging your own community isn’t enough of an impetus to vaccinate, consider the economic side. Vaccines are a proven money-saver when it comes to personal dollars spent on healthcare.
“We know that the childhood vaccine schedule saves $13 in medical expenditures for every $1 spent,” explains Temte.
Curious what an “outbreak” or slew of cases can cost your community? A 2011 study revealed that an infected Swiss traveler caused a subsequent 14 confirmed cases of measles with an additional 363 suspected cases in Tuscon, Ariz. The responding hospital spent $799,000 to identify, quarantine and treat those who came in contact with the traveler.
Crippling effects coupled with costs have states and activists scrambling to tighten regulations and make opting out much more difficult. Colorado, a state with historically low vaccine rates, recently voted to require an extensive education program for parents who do decide to “opt out.”
Extending education efforts is the prescription that doctors and activists see as a way to remedy the hit-or-miss culture associated with unvaccinated or under-vaccinated kids. April 26 marks the beginning of National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW), a CDC initiative that’s been observed since 1994.
The week-long campaign highlights important aspects of immunization, including information on the 14 diseases that the current vaccine recommendations prevent. Most importantly, however, NIIW gets the word out about the Vaccines for Children program, a federally funded initiative to provide cost-free vaccines for kids.
Still on the fence about vaccine safety? Vaccines.gov provides a balanced look at risks and benefits associated with the health practice. Do your homework, be objective, and make the right decision for your family and your fellow citizens.