In recent days, the world has witnessed West Africa's deadly Ebola epidemic. The World Health Organization is now reporting the number of illnesses and deaths are likely significantly higher than previous official estimates. Certainly those on the front lines have witnessed first hand the terrifying effects of this cruel disease. So far, 6,263 cases of the disease and 2,917 deaths, and 3,487 laboratory confirmed cases are reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria according to the CDC. The approval of a vaccine to treat the deadly disease brings me to the importance of immunization and preventative vaccination in the U.S.
Recently, many parents and communities have decided not to vaccinate their children. There are several reasons people choose not to vaccinate their children, primarily born from misinformation from anti-vaccine advocates. One advocate who profoundly impacted the discussion of vaccine safety is Andrew Wakefield, lead author of a small 1998 case report (now retracted) that hinted at a causal relationship between vaccines and the onset of childhood autism.
In 2011, Britain's leading medical journal openly criticized Wakefield's findings and labeled the data he put forward in his study "deliberately fraudulent," further stating that Wakefield "fraudulently fabricated data" and that he "willingly" changed the data concerning the children profiled in the study. The UK has rescinded Wakefield's medical license. The now-discredited study panicked many parents and led to a sharp drop in the number of children getting the vaccination that prevents measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccinations rates dropped sharply in Britain after its publication, falling to 80% by 2004. 1 Measles rates have increased sharply in the subsequent years. 2 Wakefield's response to the allegations of fraud is that "in the absence of adequate data on vaccine safety" one cannot be confident in their safety.
Wakefield's assertion is erroneous, misleading and dangerous. The paper was immediately controversial and the UK convened a special panel of the Medical Research Council. A Japanese study found no causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism in children. The British Medical Journal issued the following statement: "Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong and not dishonest, or that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project? No." This comes directly from the journal and is not editorial opinion, but scientific opinion. Nevertheless, Wakefield's fraudulent claims prompted long-lasting damage to public health.
Wakefield's claims have had a lasting impact on American children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2008, the United States saw more cases of measles than in any year since 1996. More than 90% of those infected had not been vaccinated, the CDC reported.
Other common myths about vaccines:
1. Vaccines aren't risk-free: The most common side effects are soreness at the injection site and fever, which are best treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Less common are seizures (defined as "jerking or staring"), and risks vary depending on the vaccine. For example, 1 in 14,000 children suffer a seizure after receiving the DTP shot; it's 1 in 3,000 with the MMR vaccine.
2. Too many shots weaken the immune system: Quite the opposite, each dose helps the body to mount an immune system response and make antibodies. This will allow the body to fight off a real infection should it show up.
3. Vaccines are only important for kids: There are numerous vaccines that are beneficial to adults. For example, flu shots keep young and old healthy. Older folks are more susceptible to vaccine preventable diseases such as shingles and flu. Those over 65 can benefit from the pneumococcal vaccine, whooping cough, as well as a tetanus/diphtheria immunization vaccine booster every 10 years.
4. HPV vaccine is only for girls: There are two types of this vaccine: Ceravix for girls and women 10-25, and Gardasil for females 9 to 26. Gardasil protects against the 6 and 11 types of human papillomavirus, those that cause about 90 percent of all genital warts.
5. Some vaccines contain mercury: Not quite, Thimerosal, a preservative containing 50% mercury, prevents contamination by bacteria. According to CDC, since 2001, mercury has not been present in routine vaccines for children 6 and younger. Both flu shots and some vaccines for older children are now available in either Thimerosal-free versions, or with only trace amounts.
There are some risks involved with vaccinations, just as there are with any prescribed drug of other medical intervention, but an array of misinformation exists as well. The risk of side effects are less perilous than allowing the diseases these vaccines prevent from running unchecked. One need only refer to the devastating debilitation and death that resulted from these illnesses in the not-too-distant past. Since the introduction of vaccines the incidence of polio, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and whooping cough have been drastically reduced. The measles vaccination was introduced in the United States in 1963. From 1958-1962, an average of 503,282 measles cases and 432 measles-associated deaths were reported each year. In 1998, measles reached an all time record low number of 89 cases with no measles-related deaths.
See: Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children -- United States, 1990-1998
In the past few years the number of preventable infectious diseases has increased. According to Scientific American, in 2011, children died of whooping cough in California. The outbreak was the worst since a vaccine all but eradicated the disease in 1947. Furthermore, that year the Center for Disease Control records revealed 10 measles outbreaks. The largest of these was in Minnesota with 21 cases, a state where many parents opted out of the MMR vaccination for their children because of concerns about the safety standard of the vaccine.
Since then, a number of state initiatives have been put in place to safeguard the public from preventable diseases, and states are now suspending children whose parents have not administered the proper vaccines. New laws in Oregon, Texas, North Carolina and California, to name a few, seek to reverse the rise of preventable diseases.
Read: State Law & Vaccine Requirements
No matter where I go, whom I meet or what I accomplish, I am most proud of being a mother. My mother was indifferent, neglectful and abusive. She abandoned us for days on end, beat us with belts and shuttled her lovers through the house at all hours of the day and night. I ran away from my home at 18. When I started a family, I resolved to be the mother I never had. I wanted my children to know that no matter who they were, what they believed or where they traveled, they would be loved. Moreover, I wanted my children to know more than anything that I would always do everything in my power to protect them from the confusions, pains and evils of a large, opaque and often cold world. And so, it is not the rational thinker in me, nor the professional in me, nor the student in me that decries the deleterious and neglectful practice of waiving the treatment of our nation's children with proven vaccinations. It is the mother in me who condemns this ignorant and hurtful development in healthcare.
1 PDF: Thompson, Gavin. Measles and MMR Statistics. Rep. no. SN/SG/2581. London: Library House of Commons, 2009. Web. p.5: This report summarizes the latest statistics on measles incidence and rates of immunization. Of interest is the inclusion of pertinent data on the influence of media coverage and its impact on public confidence in the MMR triple vaccine. The report also includes the UK's immunization rates with the rest of the OECD.