Health News Digest

November 13, 2006

Anti-Vaccination Hysteria—Undoing Progress


By  Michael D. Shaw

One of the greatest triumphs of preventive medicine—not to mention public health policy—is the overwhelming effectiveness of vaccination programs. Tens of millions of children in the United States alone, and even larger numbers of individuals throughout the world, will never know the terror of polio, measles, smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, and other diseases—all because of regular vaccinations. Despite all of this, a small but increasingly vocal minority of parents and politicians are leading a campaign against the wholesale use of vaccinations.

By alleging a dubious—and absolutely unproven—link between vaccines and isolated cases of meningitis and even autism (a claim that stretches credulity), these activists threaten to undo over a half-century of medical progress, exposing children to deadly diseases that, at least in the third world, were only recently vanquished or contained. This course of action is a death sentence for millions and is a clarion call for better education at home and abroad. It also indicates what can happen when people have it too good, have way too much time on their hands, and have very selective memories.

And, it must be said, this is just what can happen when science becomes politicized, and is offered up to a public not well-versed in matters scientific.

By the time a child reaches a year and a half, a pediatrician will probably recommend a total of 16 doses of six different vaccines—hepatitis B, DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis), Hib (Haemophilus Influenza Type b), polio, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), and chickenpox. A seventh—the pneumococcal vaccine, which prevents bacterial meningitis and ear infections—is now on the list of recommended vaccines within weeks. The MMR vaccine, which may contain trace elements of thimerosal, is a favorite target of criticism because of its purported link to autism.

But these claims—despite the fervor with which adherents state them and the eagerness with which some irresponsible individuals echo them—lack any evidentiary support. In fact, rates of autism and related disorders have increased as thimerosal has been removed from vaccines. Moreover, proven toxic effects of methyl mercury are far greater than what has been shown for the ethyl mercury present in thimerosal. No autism effect has ever been proven or even hinted at from actual data, and any analogies in effects between the two forms of mercury are not appropriate. For more information, refer to this link from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a study of nearly 28,000 children born between 1987 and 1998, the prevalence of pervasive developmental disorders was greater in those children vaccinated AFTER thimerosal was completely eliminated from vaccines in Canada, reported Eric Fombonne, M.D., of McGill University in Montreal. Still, some extremists refuse to accept these facts.

Consider measles, not quite the benign childhood affliction some people think it is. Six to 20 percent of the people who contract the disease will get an ear infection, diarrhea, or even pneumonia. One out of 1000 people with measles will develop inflammation of the brain. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.

Before the measles vaccine became available, there were approximately 450,000 measles cases and an average of 450 measles-associated deaths were reported each year. Widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases in the U.S. compared with the pre-vaccine era.

However, once the naysayers grabbed hold of public opinion, measles inoculations lapsed in 1989; 55,000 people got sick and 120 died. Misguided parents, somehow concluding that vaccination is worse than the disease it prevents, arrange “measles parties,” deliberately exposing children to measles so they would get the disease very young and consequently avoid vaccination. Well, no one said you had to be smart to be a parent!

Measles is not the only threat from this harmful sort of complacency by parents and public officials. When diphtheria immunization recently dipped in Russia, 2,000 cases occurred—just waiting for an un-vaccinated tourist to carry the disease home. In Nigeria, local politicians began a campaign of fear and rumor, claiming the polio vaccine would sterilize children. Those unfounded fears still persist today, and it is this myth, and others like it, that are largely responsible for the spread of polio into almost two dozen other countries where it was once stamped out.

“The world is still paying the price for what happened in Nigeria in 2003,” said Dr. David Heymann, the top official for polio eradication with the World Health Organization.

We can speculate on the motivation of the Nigerian officials, but are hard-pressed to understand the willful ignorance of American parents, who would all purport to care about their children, on this matter.

Vaccines are one of medicine’s greatest blessings. Paranoia and ignorance now threaten to undo this global achievement. Unless more people get the message about the dangers of inaction, we will witness the return of terrible diseases. That price is too expensive for any of us to pay.