He was excited about how the widespread availability of vaccines was providing hope to parents in the Third World. Meanwhile, many privileged, educated Americans were refusing to vaccinate their children — voluntarily accepting the risk of returning the mayhem impoverished countries are so anxious to escape.
And yet on Tuesday, an anti-vaccine group went to the state Capitol to protest a Senate hearing in Washington concerning how vaccines save lives and what can be done to prevent outbreaks of serious diseases. It’s as if people had never heard what life was like 50 or 60 years ago.
In many parts of the Third World, it’s still the 1950s — a time when, in this country, parents lived in mortal fear of their children contracting diseases, such as polio or measles, that could cripple or kill them.
The measles vaccine first was made available in 1963. Before then, the disease claimed as many as 500 deaths each year in the United States and made another 48,000 so sick they had to be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 4,000 people developed encephalitis, a swelling of the brain.
How quickly we forget.
The Annals of Internal Medicine just published a massive study out of Denmark, where researchers tracked 657,461 children born between 1999 and 2010. The conclusion “strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.”
It is not the first such study to reach this conclusion, thoroughly debunking the claims by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 claimed to have found such a link. He later was found to have faked some of the data, and he subsequently lost his medical license. But his claims gained a foothold among a portion of the population.
Yes, the CDC reports, some people react badly to vaccinations. While it won’t cause autism, in extremely rare instances the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine can result in deafness, seizure, coma or brain damage. Rich Lakin, immunization program manager at the Utah Department of Health, recently told the Deseret News the risk of developing any sort complication is about one in 1 million.
But the risks involved with losing herd immunity would be far more severe. After years of refilling Pandora’s Box and getting the lid closed, we can’t afford to start fiddling with the latch again.
Meanwhile, in poor countries today diseases such as rotavirus, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, are killing children. Four years ago, I met with a man who directs pediatric hematology at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He told me with enthusiasm how a newly acquired rotavirus vaccine had virtually emptied his children’s ward, which had been filled with three or four dying children per bed before 2013.
The vaccine alliance known as GAVI had, through 2017, immunized 127 million children in low-income countries, with a goal of vaccinating 300 million by 2020. This would, according to the GAVI website, save 5 to 6 million lives and reduce child mortality rates in those countries by 10 percent.
The First World should understand this and be grateful it paved the way. The CDC estimates vaccines prevented 732,000 deaths among people born in the United States between 1994 and 2013, as well as 322 million illnesses.
What a shame if we chose to relearn the lessons of previous generations the hard way.