With numbers climbing from the Disney measles outbreak, childhood diseases and where you stand on vaccinations are this week’s hot topics … but they shouldn’t be controversial at all. Or political. Yet, as more children get sick and more vaccine opponents come froward, the measles outbreak is getting political. While FLOTUS and POTUS say children should be vaccinated for measles and many other childhood diseases, and Hillary Clinton has weighed in with her urging to get inoculations with the Twitter hashtag of #Grandmothersknowbest:
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 3, 2015
On the GOP spectrum, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is, for some reason, hedging his bets and pandering, saying parents’ personal decisions should be respected, though his kids have been vaccinated.
On top of that, apparently there are people who write books that get published (or ones they publish themselves) who are stupid enough to think that it’s good for kids to not only get sick but also to risk getting very sick or dying. I’m talking here about Melanie’s Marvelous Measles. From the short Amazon description of her book, author Stephanie Messenger appears to be an anti-vaxxer with the terribly poor judgment to title her book after Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine, even though Dahl was a big supporter of vaccines after his own daughter died of measles because no safe vaccination had been available to her.
Messenger’s exhortation to parents and children to embrace measles is no better than encouraging people to forgo using car seats for their infants. After all, most children will survive without car seats so why bother? So what if a few kids get thrown to their death in a car crash or slam into another passenger and injure or kill them? That’s just the price we pay for freedom, right? And despite Christie’s reference to “parental choice,” a decision against vaccinating your child could harm or kill another person. Your unvaccinated child is a walking time bomb because many diseases like measles are contagious before you even know your child is sick — it’s like sprinkling a crowd with crushed peanuts knowing there are some people who have a life-threatening peanut allergy.
My view of such people is similar to my view of Republicans such as Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert, two of the most ignorant irrational idiots in politics (where there is a great deal of competition for the honor). There is good reason for my analogy because many of the people who oppose vaccinations display the same sort of irrational views as people like Bachmann and Gohmert. Bachmann even displayed some of those anti-vaxxer views in her statement about the HPV vaccine causing retardation.
I will admit to a pro-vaccine point of view. But my view is not based on anecdotes and rumors but on my seven years of graduate work in two different universities in public health where I learned about the incredible role played by vaccines in saving so much of humankind from death and disability. Bear with me as I share a little history of how we came to be lucky enough to live in a world where we can vaccinate our children to prevent them from contracting — and spreading — deadly diseases.
Back in the late 18th century, Dr. Edward Jenner (1749-1823) paid attention when he heard a milkmaid saying that she would never have smallpox because she had already had cowpox. Smallpox devastated populations in the 18th and 19th centuries, with
400,000 people dying annually of smallpox in the 18th century alone. One third of the survivors went blind. The fatality rate ranged from 20 percent to 60 percent in adults, leaving most survivors with disfiguring scars, with the infant fatality rate reaching between 80 to 90 percent.
Jenner found that by infecting people with the mild cowpox disease made them immune to smallpox. That is, their bodies’ development of immunity to the non-deadly cowpox protected them from the very deadly smallpox. The vaccines we use now to prevent so many diseases work on the same principle; they are an organic/natural foods/healthy life person’s dream because they make use of a person’s own natural defenses against disease.
So in the case of measles, instead of getting that immunity by catching measles, suffering through high fevers, spots and other illness miseries, worrying about the potential dangers of pneumonia, encephalitis, and hearing loss, you receive a very weak (“attenuated”) form of the virus through a vaccination that the body easily fights off. And in fighting off that weakened virus, the body builds defenses against invasion by the far more serious, sometimes fatal, version of the virus.
In other words, vaccination is a far safer way of creating natural immunity to disease than is actually getting the disease. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving – the natural immunity evoked by vaccinations means that children will be able to lead a far more natural medicine-free existence since they won’t be getting sick with measles, mumps, German measles, whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and several other illnesses.
And vaccines are not only good for the individual who gets them. There are some people who for specific medical reasons, like a weakened immune system due to AIDS or cancer chemotherapy, can’t get the vaccine. If most of the people around them are vaccinated, that high vaccination rate creates a kind of protective wall (called “herd immunity”) around those people who can’t get the vaccine and who are also more likely to have fatal or very serious consequences from getting the disease itself.
Finally, the diseases that vaccines prevent are costly to our society. In the late 1980s we went through a series of epidemics of preventable diseases. Low vaccination rates led to a number of epidemics. In the case of measles, between 1989 and 1991 there were 55,000 cases, 11,000 hospitalizations and 130 deaths.
Some of those cases led to lifelong problems such as hearing loss and mental retardation. These illnesses and long-term difficulties were not only a tremendous problem for the families of the children who got measles, they were and are a burden to our country in terms of costs and resources. Just the California portion of this epidemic is estimated to have cost almost $31 million at that time.
So getting vaccinated is not only a smart personal safety measure, it is a civic responsibility. But anti-vaccine people keep preaching their literally sickening advice, even in the face of the worsening outbreaks of measles, like the anti-vaxxers in this recent New York Times article. I had to put on a helmet to stop my head from exploding when I read this:
“Kelly McMenimen, a Lagunitas parent, said she ‘meditated on it a lot’ before deciding not to vaccinate her son Tobias, 8, against even ‘deadly or deforming diseases.’ She said she did not want ‘so many toxins’ entering the slender body of a bright-eyed boy who loves math and geography.
“Tobias has endured chickenpox and whooping cough, though Ms. McMenimen said the latter seemed more like a common cold. She considered a tetanus shot after he cut himself on a wire fence but decided against it: ‘He has such a strong immune system.’ “
Here’s what this wonderful mother risked by not having her son immunized against tetanus — tetanus symptoms often begin with a headache and trouble opening your mouth. With what we also call “lockjaw,” according to WebMD, “you also may have trouble swallowing and/or get a stiff neck, back, or shoulders. As the toxin spreads, it can be deadly. It can cause problems with your blood pressure and heart rate. It can cause severe and painful muscle spasms in your neck, arms, legs, and belly. If spasms continue and get worse, they can break bones, including the spine. And all that suffering happens before more than 1 out of 8 people with tetanus die.”
So by deciding she didn’t want “so many toxins” entering her son’s body, she left him vulnerable to the true toxin, the bacteria Clostridium tetani. That’s the real danger– not an injection that teaches his body how to fight that bacteria.
And let’s not forget the completely debunked claim by anti-vaxxers that they are protecting their children against autism. That claim just shows that these people either haven’t checked the research or don’t understand science. The initial claims of a link were debunked more than a decade ago not only because the research was so poorly done but also because it was discovered that the author was reaping (and likely to reap more) financial rewards for his claims. Usually bribery is a reason to distrust the recipient of a bribe, but there are still some people who think the guy who almost single-handedly lowered immunization rates in Europe and the U.S. is a hero. Then again, there are people who think global climate change is a hoax. I’m sure they’d enjoy having tea & cake together – they have so much in common.