There has been a lot of news recently about outbreaks of diseases such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough (pertussis) around the country. This has renewed the public debate about vaccinations.
Vaccines are one of the most important methods we have to prevent diseases. Vaccines are made by reproducing inert particles of diseases or by inactivating whole viruses or bacteria.
In order to protect the population from a disease, at least 90% of people must be vaccinated. This is called herd immunity. Herd immunity protects people who cannot be vaccinated, such as newborns and chemotherapy patients. However, if herd immunity is lost due to lack of adequate vaccination levels, then even vaccinated people can get sick. So the take home message is: if everyone who can be vaccinated is, we are all protected. If they don’t, then the whole community is at risk.
This is illustrated by the current outbreak of measles in the US, which was previously declared eradicated in 2000. In 2014, there were 668 cases of measles, the most by far in recent history. Three of those cases were in neighboring NY State. So far in 2015, there have already been 159 documented cases of measles across the country. Outbreaks like this one tend to occur when unvaccinated people from other countries travel to the US, and then spread it to pockets of unvaccinated Americans.
This is a huge concern for Vermonters, as we have one of the lowest rates of measles vaccinations in the country. According to the CDC annual vaccination report, Vermont was the second worst state in the nation for unvaccinated kindergarteners for the 2012-13 school year.
Despite this, many parents still have real concerns about the safety of vaccines. There are rare risks to all vaccines, which include allergic reactions and immune reactions like Guillain-Barre Syndrome. While these reactions are concerning, the statistical chance of any of them occurring is far less than the risk of being harmed by the disease the vaccine protects us against. If this were not the case, we would never vaccinate people.
The most widely publicized concern is that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism. This misinformation came from a 1998 British Medical Journal article by an unethical doctor who based his data, which he later admitted to falsifying, on just twelve patients. He has since recanted his position and lost his medical license, but not before severe damage has been done, requiring numerous studies totaling many thousands of patients to disprove his work. As a result of this medical fraud, the MMR vaccine rates across the developed world dropped significantly. Interestingly, the rates of measles cases in the US have risen in recent years, shortly after the decline in vaccination rates.
The other common concern is in regards to thimerosal, a mercury containing preservative in some vaccines. This has since been removed from almost all US vaccines, but has also subsequently been proven to be of no harm, as the chemical form of the mercury in thimerosal is inert.
In summary, vaccines are safe and overwhelmingly beneficial to our health. I would encourage anyone with questions to talk to his/her doctor to get the facts. Don’t let misinformation on the internet be the reason you or your child is harmed or killed by a preventable illness.