Why I Believe in Global Vaccination
I usually don’t like to tell parents how to raise their children. As long as your children aren’t hurting themselves or others, I respect different parenting styles. But there is one topic I feel very strongly about – vaccination.
This post isn’t meant to rehash all the pro and con vaccine arguments. I just want to give you my thoughts on vaccines, as a mother and a vaccine researcher.
We developed vaccines because these diseases are killers
I consider myself lucky to be able to protect my children from diseases that used to kill or maim tens of millions of people. In 1980, prior to a wide-scale vaccination program, measles killed 2.6 million people annually. In 2011, measles was still killing about 18 people per hour in countries with inadequate vaccination. Prior to vaccination, diphtheria killed 20% of infected people younger than 5 years of age and older than 40 years of age. In 1964, 12 million people in the US alone were infected with rubella (German measles). Although the disease is mild in normal people, rubella is devastating to unborn children when mothers are infected during pregnancy. I could hardly believe these numbers when I looked them up. Having grown up in a modern, vaccinated society, I have never been exposed to these diseases. I forgot – or better yet, I never really knew how bad it could be. As a society I think we have become complacent and have forgotten our history with these bugs.
Vaccines do not cause autism
If there is one person I would like to erase from scientific history, it is Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield reported a link between the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles, rubella) and autism and bowel disease. He claimed that the 12 children he studied mentally regressed within 14 days after receiving the vaccine. He recommended that the triple vaccine be discontinued in favor of single vaccine shots. His claim fueled an anti-vaccine movement that continues today with a general distrust in all vaccines. It turns out that not only was the good doctor wrong, he was found guilty of dishonesty, professional misconduct and abuse of developmentally challenged children. He misreported the onset of autism (most children did not have symptoms within 14 days of vaccination and some children had symptoms before vaccination), he paid for lab specimens and subjects, ordered unnecessary painful and invasive tests, ignored data that did not fit his conclusions and he never disclosed his financial interest in marketing a single vaccine for measles. His original paper was retracted and no other research has ever found a link between vaccines and autism.
Herd immunity is important for successful vaccination programs
Herd immunity is a concept that means that once enough people are vaccinated for a disease, everyone (the herd) will be protected. The unvaccinated population will be protected from disease because enough people are vaccinated to break the chain of infection. It’s what helps protect the youngest of our children while their immune systems are developing, it protects our senior population whose immune systems aren’t working like they used to and it is what protects the unvaccinated. If the vaccinated population falls below the threshold necessary to keep up herd immunity, then outbreaks of disease will occur. There are communities in Oregon in which >10% of the children have not been vaccinated – these children are already at risk for an outbreak of whooping cough (requires 93% of population to be vaccinated) and potentially measles (threshold 83-94%).
Vaccines aren’t perfect
Let’s be honest. Vaccines aren’t ideal. It is hard to give your normal, healthy child a shot that will make them cry, be cranky, have a sore leg/arm and possibly run a fever. And although it is very rare, some children will experience a serious complication such as an allergic reaction to vaccine components or seizures. It is important that we remain diligent about the safety of vaccines. That is why so much research is done to make sure our vaccines are safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an early warning system to report potential complications, a project to collect vaccine data on more than 5.5 million people annually, a collaboration to standardize reporting adverse events and a network to investigate reported adverse events. These safety nets are in place to make sure adverse reactions are reported early, investigated and studied to decide if they are related to vaccination.
Vaccines can eradicate disease
Due to a global vaccination program, we have wiped smallpox off the face of the earth. Because smallpox does not exist in our world anymore the vaccine is no longer required. Very few people in my generation have the round scar on their arm from smallpox vaccination. We can do the same with other diseases that are only carried by humans. We are very close to eradicating polio – there were only 650 cases of polio in 2011 in just 3 countries.
Let’s get some perspective
Vaccines are almost always far safer than developing the disease itself. If an unvaccinated child contracts measles, 6/100 infected children will develop pneumonia, 1/1000 infected children will develop an infection in the brain and 2/1000 children will die. In contrast, 1/1,000,000 children vaccinated with MMR will develop a severe reaction. That’s 0.0001%!
There are so many things that our children encounter that we can’t protect them from. For me, protecting them from disease is a no brainer. It is good for them and it is good for our entire society.
For further information about vaccines, see 5 Myths About Vaccines.