Marin county ranks #2 in California for pertussis (whooping cough), with 123 cases per 100,000. The illness has reached epidemic levels in California, with 5600 cases and 10 deaths. The disease is completely preventable with the dtap vaccine. However, bourgeois parents in Marin often choose to forego the vaccine out of irrational fears about the safety of vaccines (and the assumption that enough other parents will vaccinate their children to protect their unvaccinated kids through herd immunity). Many are also skipping the vaccine for measles, a disease that once killed 3000 children annually.
In San Francisco, and many other counties, the majority of those stricken with the illness are Spanish speaking immigrants. The assumption of medical professionals is that there is an outreach problem in terms of educating the immigrant population. There has also been a dramatic jump in adult infections due to the fact that the vaccine wears off over time and adults rarely get boosters. The high infection rate in Marin, however, is primarily among white middle class children.
What’s most troubling about the anti-vaccine hysteria is the utter disregard for everyone else’s safety. It is understandable that parents would want to protect their children from perceived threats. But in the case of vaccines, not only is the perceived threat irrational and exaggerated, but the consequences of foregoing vaccines are that everyone’s risk level goes up proportionately to the number of people who are not vaccinated.
Herd immunity occurs when 80-90% of the population is vaccinated (depending on the pathogen). Once a threshold of vaccination has been reached, it is virtually impossible for the pathogen to establish a foothold in the population, thus protecting the minority that has not been vaccinated. Some studies have indicated that being unvaccinated in a highly vaccinated population is far better protection than being vaccinated in a poorly vaccinated population. Therefore, a selfish and self-entitled parent might assume that his or her child is safe, even if the child is unvaccinated. The problem is that if too many parents make this assumption, the threshold is not met and herd immunity does NOT occur and their child is at an increased risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease. Worse, everyone’s children are at an increased risk.
The anti-vaccine movement is dominated by wing nuts and extremists who use fear and misinformation to intimidate opponents and to recruit new adherents. Amy Wallace, author of Epidemic of Fear, and Paul Offit, coinventor of the rotovirus vaccine (a drug that could save thousands of children’s lives), were recently sued for $1 million dollars by Barbara Loe Arthur of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) for liable. Fortunately, the lawsuit was thrown out. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. called Offit a “biostitute,” while actor, Jim Carey, calls him a profiteer. One man even threatened to murder him under the mistaken assumption that this would somehow save innocent children’s lives.
Why so much sturm und drang over an award winning scientist who has created a life-saving medication? Autism is a terrible disease. It scares the hell out of new parents who are understandably desperate to find a causative factor they can blame. Offit has infuriated anti-vaccination activists by publishing well-researched data refuting their bogus claims, including the one linking autism to vaccines. Numerous studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism. The illness is typically diagnosed in children between the ages of 12 and 24 months, the same ages in which they are receiving common childhood vaccinations. The correlation however, is purely coincidental. Thimerisal, a mercury-containing preservative, has not been used in children’s vaccines for over ten years, yet autism rates have continued to climb in that same time period. Likewise, vaccines have been incorrectly linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, after several people contracted this tragic auto-immune condition coincidentally after receiving swine flu vaccines in the 1970s. (Guillain-Barre is extremely rare, occurring in only one to two out of every 500,000 people. The cases in the 1970s did occur after flu vaccinations, but were still within the normal range).
Anti-vaccination advocates also blame Big-Pharma for sacrificing their children’s safety for profits. This fear is based on a long history of pharmaceutical companies distorting data, providing false claims of safety, and massively promoting dangerous products in order to boost profits (e.g., Vioxx, Fen-Phen, Accutane, DES, Thalidomide). While drug companies have been making fortunes from drugs like Lipitor, Nexium, Prozac, and Viagra, most have been getting out of the vaccine market, as profits are low compared to the blockbusters, and liability is high, particularly for newer vaccines, like influenza, which must be reformulated each year. If anything, the profit motive has increased our risk of contracting preventable diseases by limiting availability (See Mike Davis, Monster at the Door, for how this relates to influenza).
Many parents believe that too many vaccines overwhelm a child’s immune system. There is no science to back up this claim. However, a newborn may not have a strong enough immune system to develop immunity when vaccinated, so the hepatitis vaccine that hospitals offer the day after a child is born may not be effective. Also, parents can choose to space out the vaccinations to allow their children to recover in between vaccinations (many do cause minor side effects like muscle pain or cold symptoms). Some parents also believe that vaccines increase the risk of diabetes, but this is based on the flawed research of a single discredited scientist. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no connection.
Vaccines save lives. Consider the smallpox vaccine, which has eradicated this deadly disease throughout the world, or the polio vaccine, which has eliminated this potentially deadly or disabling disease throughout most of the world. Avoiding vaccines for your child not only increases your child’s risk of contracting a deadly disease, but increases the risk for everyone else, too. There are also other costs associated with non-vaccination. Diseases like whooping cough, for example, which tend to kill mostly infants, can cause older children to miss weeks of school, potentially causing them to fail and have to repeat a year of classes. Parents may be forced to skip weeks of work to care for sick children (or themselves, if they catch the disease). Buying into pseudoscientific quackery and snake oils will not prevent or cure autism.