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Immunizations: A matter of life and death

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Parenting is a minefield, one littered with harmless myths and lethal falsehoods that could blow up spectacularly without warning. One of the most pervasive and deadly is the idea that vaccines cause autism. No matter how many experts debunk the myth, well-intentioned parents continue to step on this landmine in higher numbers than we’ve seen in our lifetimes. And when that happens? Boom.

One such explosion has come in the form of a resurgence of a long-eradicated illness: the measles.

“Nearly everyone in the US got measles before there was a vaccine,” explains Michelle Miner, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at SIU School of Medicine. “Hundreds died from it each year. Today, most doctors have never seen a case of measles.”

Unfortunately, the chances of doctors coming face-to-face with the measles is higher than it has been in years. In 2008, after a yearly average of 63 cases per year since 2000, the CDC reported 131 cases of measles. The number has fluctuated annually since, peaking in 2014 with 667 cases. 

To see the potentially lethal effects of going without vaccinations, we only need look east. In Japan in 1974, about 80% of children were getting the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. “That year, there were only 393 cases of whooping cough in the entire country, and not a single pertussis-related death,” Dr. Miner says.

But things changed quickly. Immunization rates began to drop until only about 10% of children were being vaccinated. In 1979, more than 13,000 people got whooping cough. Forty-one of them died.

Happily, there was an answer.

“When routine vaccination was resumed,” Dr. Miner says, “the disease numbers dropped again.”

To parents who have concerns, Dr. Miner is sympathetic.

“There is so much confusing information in the media, so it is very important to evaluate your sources.”

Dr. Miner and the rest of the medical community feel much of this confusion and fear started with Dr. Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Dr. Wakefield claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. His claims picked up a number of famous followers, such as Jenny McCarthy, and the rest is history repeated.

“Since then, both the journal and Dr. Wakefield himself admitted that the statements were incorrect, that faulty data analysis was used, and the paper was retracted,” Dr. Miner says. “He and his colleagues were found guilty of ethical violations and scientific misrepresentation, as well as deliberate fraud and data falsification. Since then, numerous large scientifically sound studies have absolutely shown there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.”

Despite these studies, however, some parents remain skeptical. This skepticism affects not only their own children, but all children, thanks to the concept of herd immunity.

“Let’s say someone gets a disease. They can spread it to others, and these diseases can go on to spread through a community just like a wildfire,” Dr. Miner explains. “People who are vaccinated can’t get the disease, so it stops the disease from spreading through the community. But with the growing number of people choosing not to be vaccinated, the disease is allowed to spread. If vaccine levels drop nationally, these diseases could again become as common as they were before vaccines.”

Not all parents or their children have the option of being vaccinated, Dr. Miner stresses. Those children rely heavily on herd immunity.

“There are many children who can’t get vaccines because their immune system is too vulnerable—children getting chemotherapy, for example. If they got one of these diseases, it could be deadly,” she says.

“Imagine if a child beat their leukemia, but died from chicken pox because a classmate wasn’t vaccinated. Such preventable diseases are just tragic.”

When it comes to the life-and-death matter of immunizations, consult your pediatrician—not Jenny McCarthy.

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