I know it shouldn’t, but it still amazes me when I hear people say they had measles when they were young and it didn’t do them any harm – so why bother to vaccinate? I had measles too, and I was one of the lucky ones.
Measles continues to be a significant killer globally, with mortality risks greatest amongst those malnourished or without access to healthcare. In the US, before vaccination programs started in the early 60s, several hundred people died each year, many of them young children. Earlier in the century, mortality in the US was much higher, reflecting the poorer health conditions and nutritional status of the population.
Measles remains a leading cause of death among children in many less developed countries. But it’s not just mortality that we have to worry about. Other health complications can arise from measles infections that may result in hospitalizations and significant healthcare costs. Vaccination programs have changed that picture in the developed world, and they are beginning to raise our hopes for successful eradication worldwide, just as we’ve achieved for smallpox, and may be close to achieving for polio.
The people who I have deep sympathy for are those who say they vaccinated their child, and he/she subsequently developed autism. Thank you for vaccinating your child, you may well have saved another child from dying from the disease. It is natural to need something/someone to blame when your child is diagnosed with a debilitating disease, but science has found no credible links between vaccination and autism. Yes, there can be a very limited number of injuries and even deaths associated with any vaccination program, but the numbers are minuscule compared to the lives and injuries saved. This is why scientists are constantly working to improve the safety and efficacy of vaccines (a plug for continued and increasing funding for biomedical research).
An individual’s decision not to vaccinate their child, whatever their reasoning, is a decision that puts family members, their neighbor’s children, their children’s school fellows, their community and the broader population at risk from a potentially debilitating disease, with a risk of death, particularly amongst young children in the socio-economically challenged parts of our country.
Ill-informed politicians, celebrities and “internet quacks” will, I’m afraid, continue to stir our fears – they put the very fabric of our public health system at risk – not only in this country – but globally, to their and our shame.
Check out Orenstein, Papania and Wharton (2004), in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, for the story of measles elimination in the United State. http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/189/Supplement_1/S1.long