Considering the Herd
By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations
To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate? For a growing number of parents, that’s become a question. Their decision has far reaching consequences, and affects more people than you might expect.
We’ve sought to rout the spread of diseases for as long as we’ve existed. Our methods have evolved over time, and today there is no less important tool in the fight against destructive diseases than the vaccine. It might seem that only lately has the safety and ubiquity of vaccines come under fire, but since their creation, vaccines have created controversy. Today, the vast majority of the medical community agrees that vaccinations are safe and effective – and if the majority of the population is administered the vaccination, the entire community is protected. There’s a reason why smallpox, polio, and the measles no longer kill large swaths of people in the United States anymore. Without vaccines – and their widespread use – we would still be fighting those diseases today.
In 2008, a seven year old boy contracted the measles while overseas and returned to California; before he was diagnosed, he went to school, a day-care center, and a pediatrician’s office. According to the CDC, the boy exposed 70 other children to the measles. Eleven children became ill. The measles is a deadly disease. Again, from the CDC: “In the prevaccine era, 3 to 4 million measles cases occurred every year, resulting in approximately 450 deaths, 28,000 hospitalizations, and 1,000 children with chronic disabilities from measles encephalitis.”
Measles, once a common childhood disease, no longer casts a shadow of fear in the United States. This is directly attributable to the widespread use of vaccines. Everyone in the community cannot be protected, however. Children under 12 months are not vaccinated, but they rarely contract the measles today. That vulnerable group is protected by the large number of vaccinated individuals who create “herd immunity.” Herd immunity occurs when a critical number of people in the community are vaccinated. (In the case of the measles, more than 90 percent of people must be vaccinated to prevent transmission of the virus and maintain elimination in the population.) The individuals who are unable to receive a vaccination (like pregnant women, infants, or immunocompromised individuals) are protected from the disease because the high number of vaccinated individuals create little opportunity for an outbreak to occur.
For centuries, vaccines have been met with skepticism and sometimes violent resistance. In the 1700s a preacher named Cotton Mather spread the gospel and the practice of variolation to prevent smallpox infection. The preacher learned the practice of blowing dried smallpox scabs into the nose of an individual, causing them to contract a mild form of the disease but become immune afterwards, from his slave. During a 1721 epidemic in Boston, he attempted to spread the practice. His efforts were denounced and his home was firebombed.
Today, unfounded fears that vaccinations cause autism have led many parents to eschew vaccinations for their children entirely. The idea that vaccinations cause autism began with a since debunked article in The Lancet, a British medical journal. Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his belief in a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism in 1998. The paper sparked a suspicion of vaccination, leading some parents to avoid vaccination for their children. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the paper. The information presented was incorrect, and Dr. Wakefield’s unethical motivations for writing the paper came to light. You can (and should) read the full story here.
Then, as now, we were unsure of the causes of autism. Parents are understandably concerned and seeking answers. Since 1998, multiple studies have proven there is no link between autism and vaccination. Measles, along with other diseases, was once a very real specter parents feared and millions of children suffered from. We must put unfounded fears aside and consider the herd when making choices for ourselves and our children. We have only to look to our past to see the unfortunate consequences of an unvaccinated population.