Vaccines save lives. That’s a fact. Here are a few more: Vaccines do not cause autism. They do not contain toxic chemicals. Vaccines are one of the greatest medical achievements of modern civilization.
As an immunologist and a pediatrician — and a parent — I can assure you that science is on our side, and that infant immune systems are robust and can handle multiple vaccines at a time. I can tell also you that no practicing physician is making a profit off childhood vaccines.
Blame the effectiveness of vaccines for one thing: the endurance of the anti-vaxxer, anti-science movement. Because vaccines work, most parents today have never laid eyes on a healthy, bright-eyed baby covered in the red splotches of measles — or worse, the rare cases of encephalitis that can crop up seven to 10 years after a child has measles and result in brain damage or death.
Measles had been eliminated from the United States at the turn of the 21st century after a nearly 40-year health campaign. Before 1963, when the national measles vaccination program started, nearly 4 million people contracted the disease annually. Four hundred or 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized and 4,000 developed encephalitis as a complication.
But in 1998 The Lancet published a study by a gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield that wrongly alleged a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in 12 children. The data had been faked. In 2012 The Lancet retracted this study as it became known that Wakefield was taking money from lawyers hoping to pursue vaccine damage cases. But the damage had been done.
We are now in the midst of a public health crisis. Florida had 15 cases of measles diagnosed in 2018, and new cases are suspected in Sarasota this year.
Research suggests that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children don’t do so because they lack education about the science of vaccines and their effectiveness. Their arguments range from a fear of “toxins” in the vaccines to an overall distrust of Big Pharma. On the other side of the political spectrum you hear talk of medical freedom and that government-mandated vaccines are a form of medical fascism.
Here’s the reality: Measles is transmitted by respiratory droplets passed along through sneezing and coughing and is incredibly contagious — droplets can remain in the air from an infected person for hours — so today’s lower vaccination rates are leading to dangerous pockets of low immunity. This is happening in areas of the country filled with educated and prosperous families.
Herd immunity (when at least 95 percent of the population is vaccinated) has historically shielded anti-vaccine parents and their children, but vaccination rates are dropping to as low as 85 percent in some counties. Sarasota County leads the state in religious vaccine exemptions with 7.2 percent of kindergartners obtaining this exemption. While all states require vaccination of students entering school they all also allow for religious exemptions but 17 of the 50 states also allow for philosophical exemptions based on personal, moral or other beliefs.
When most are vaccinated, there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Some people — those too young to be immunized, pregnant women, those with chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes, those who are immunosuppressed from chemotherapy or immunodeficiencies, those with certain vitamin deficiencies — can be at grave risk if the community doesn’t have immunity. The non-vaccination of children who are medically able to be vaccinated poses a threat to each and every one of us and to future generations.
Let’s make vaccines about science and not politics or personal ideology. Let’s have conversations about vaccines with our neighbors and co-workers. Ask your children’s friends parents if their children are vaccinated. Let them know it matters. Check with your day care to be sure workers are requiring vaccines so your child remains safe. Let them know it’s important to you. Let legislators know that attempts to allow for more vaccine exemptions will not be tolerated. It’s every community member’s responsibility to help keep all of us safe.
It’s your child’s health, so do not rely on politicians, celebrities, models, comedians or talk show hosts for medical advice. Don’t be swayed by that Facebook meme you saw about vaccines and autism or the documentary you watched on the evils of Big Pharma. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents more than 65,000 U.S. pediatricians urges parents, schools and communities to be responsible and “to commit to protecting our nation’s infants, children, adolescents and adults with the most effective tool we have — vaccination.”
While my heart breaks for those who will contract measles, I hope their images will be seared in the minds of this generation and those to come and that we never forget that vaccines save lives.
Dr. Mona V. Mangat, a member and past board chair of Doctors for America, is a board-certified allergist and immunologist in St. Petersburg. She currently practices at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma.