The global public health success of vaccination is astounding. According to the World Health Organization, vaccinations save the lives of 2-3 million people worldwide each year and prevent millions of others from suffering and disability. Marvelous achievements from the use of vaccinations continue; just this month India was declared Polio-free .
Past and ongoing studies on the vaccinations currently approved and in use demonstrate excellent effectiveness and safety. As a consequence, leading medical authorities worldwide have declared, without hesitation, that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any of the associated risks.
Yet, there is a growing global movement of vaccine doubters and deniers, the anti-vaccinationists, who spread dangerous misinformation about vaccines resulting in an increasing number of people refusing routine recommended vaccinations. Unfortunately as a result, communities are now struggling with outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infections and their health impacts. For example, in just the past few months there have been measles outbreaks in Texas, New York , The Netherlands and Alberta .
Anti-vaccinationists often derive their opinions from patient narratives that are emotionally compelling, but scientifically unfounded. They tend to overlook the public health benefits of high immunization rates choosing, instead, to focus on the (trivial or extremely rare) health risks of vaccination as applied directly to themselves or their children. Typical rationalizations include “I don’t want to vaccinate my baby because he is too small,” “because I don’t want him to have a vaccine injury,” or “because I’m afraid he’ll get autism”. They are often comfortable with the risks of not vaccinating because they feel protected by the cocoon of others around them who are vaccinated, or they are not fearful of the illness itself. In my pediatrics practice, I frequently hear “I had chicken pox and everyone I know has had chicken pox. They handled it fine! What are we all so scared of?”
What’s missing from these arguments is the notion that we vaccinate, not only to protect ourselves and our children, but also to preserve the health and well-being of our families, friends, neighbors and extended communities. Protecting ourselves enables the protection of those more fragile around us, or those unable to get vaccinations for themselves. I am concerned about this lack of understanding around the responsibility we collectively have (or should have) to keep our communities safe from life and health-threatening disease. Most children may handle a chickenpox infection relatively handily, but there are others in our communities (an example of which you will read about below) whose health and lives depend on us maintaining our own immunity to vaccine-preventable illnesses.
I am both heartened and heartbroken by the following story (written by my friend Stephanie Weiner) – heartened by the reality that this tragedy would likely not occur in 2014, but heartbroken that tragedies like this may recur in the not-so-distant future if we don’t address the devastating risk posed by anti-vaccinationists.
As you read Stephanie’s – emotionally compelling and scientifically credible- words below, and whether you are a vaccine doubter/denier or not, please think seriously about our collective responsibility to vaccinate ourselves and our children to protect those more fragile and susceptible among us.
My brother Chucky died from the Chicken Pox. It was 1978. Back then, there was no vaccine available for this common childhood illness. For most kids, it’s an unpleasant, achy, itchy week of calamine lotion and Tylenol. But for others it can be lethal.
Chucky was in remission from Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, the most common, curable form of Childhood Leukemia. He was finally done with countless rounds of chemo, radiation, blood pokes, spinal taps, and boom, he unluckily came into contact with this airborne virus. The problem was, his immune system was compromised. In a child who is otherwise well, the body kicks into overdrive to fight the illness. In kids who have a weak immune system for a variety of reasons, including remission from cancer, there’s nothing there to fight with.
I’m writing this because I’m now a 42 year-old mother of 2 young children and quite simply it enrages me when I hear of other parents choosing to not vaccinate their children from this disease and many others. Chicken pox and measles can be virtually eradicated from the planet.
We live in a global village. The impact of our individual choices goes far beyond our personal cocoons. Stories like Stephanie’s emphasize that we must think above and beyond our individual selves, and consider too, the local, regional and global health implications of our decisions.
When it comes to making health choices around vaccination, keep in mind what Dr. David L. Katz concludes in his recent essay entitled The Anti Anti-Vaccine Argument “the anti-vaccine argument, full as it is of sound and passion and fury, is fueled by emotion and an absence of evidence, and is unsound. The anti anti-vaccine argument is rooted deeply in the evidence of absent diseases, and is strong.”