You might have missed the brief report in Monday’s newspaper noting that healthcare officials at the University of California at Berkeley are scrambling to make certain all students are protected against measles.
That’s right, measles. Most people are vaccinated against this disease before they’re able to say much more than “ouch.”
But not all. As people have become distrusting or fearful of government, doctors and drug companies, a sizable fraction have started refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated. It’s easy to see why when those parents are presented the worst-case scenario documents they must sign before the vaccination is given. Scary stuff.
But you know what’s scarier? Measles. Most people think of red spots. They should also think of brain inflammation, blindness, deafness or death. There is one chance in 1,000 that any child who gets measles will also get encephalitis; and two of every 1,000 who get encephalitis die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, 164,000 people die from measles each year.
Before the vaccine was developed in the 1950s, around 48,000 Americans required hospitalization for measles every year and roughly 500 died. The vaccine changed all that. It was so effective that the disease was thought to have been eliminated in the United States in 2000.
The vaccinations worked then and will continue to work, if parents allow their children to be vaccinated.
Unfortunately, many parents prefer taking a high-stakes gamble with their children’s health. In some cities, up to half of all first-graders have not been vaccinated for measles, according to state statistics.
Reasons vary. Some parents prefer a “natural immunity” to vaccine-acquired immunity; others believe vaccines overload a child’s immune system; others say we shouldn’t worry about diseases that have “disappeared.” Then there’s the Jenny McCarthy phenomenon. The former Playboy model has convinced some parents that vaccines cause autism. The one study that linked the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism, by British doctor Andrew Wakefield in 1998, has been discredited as fraudulent, and the published paper was retracted. Autism rates are the same in vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
One unvaccinated child might not get a vaccine-preventable disease. But that child can expose vulnerable populations to illness – including infants who haven’t been vaccinated and individuals who have compromised immune systems. If too many people opt out, a community’s immunity can collapse. Need proof? Two new cases in Berkeley and another 49 elsewhere in California this year.
Starting Jan. 1, California tightened opt-out rules, requiring parents who refuse vaccines to get more information from health providers, unless their religion prohibits seeking medical advice. This move has reduced opt-out rates in Washington state and could help here.
Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University states the moral issue starkly: “If you infect my newborn or my grandmom because you put your liberty over your duty to help protect the weak ... then you are responsible for the harm you do and you ought to be liable for it.”
Vaccinations protect your children and everyone else’s at the same time.