There are some diseases of the past that we’ve all heard of — such as polio, measles, and the mumps — but, unless you are of a certain age, you probably don’t know anyone who has ever contracted one. Quite possibly, until now.
The biggest outbreak of measles in the United States in decades took place just a few months ago.1 Between January and May of 2011, 118 cases of measles were reported, which is close to twice as many as for the entire year of 2010. And let’s not forget that measles had been declared eliminated in this country in 2000. So how could this happen?
The disease is being reintroduced to the U.S. primarily by travelers who have not been vaccinated against it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, approximately 90 percent of the patients affected by the current outbreak were unvaccinated. The majority were Americans who traveled to Europe, where the measles problem has escalated well beyond an outbreak to reach epidemic proportions. Residents of 38 different countries there have contracted the disease and in France alone there are 10,000 reported cases and six deaths.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that babies are not vaccinated for measles until after their first birthday. Approximately 15 percent of the cases in this outbreak were children under one year old. Children and adults who have been vaccinated are not at risk to contract measles.
Which brings us to the other part of the problem. Since measles has been extremely uncommon in the U.S. in the past few decades, and immunization has been possibly linked to autism, there are parents who do not want to take the risk of subjecting their children to this vaccination. Certainly this is a valid choice when every other child in the neighborhood is vaccinated and there is virtually no chance of ever having your child exposed, but with the possibility of outbreaks occurring more frequently, are parents taking a bigger risk by not vaccinating their children? Take note that more than half of the children younger than five years old who contracted measles in the latest wave had to be hospitalized.
Over the last several decades, parents have been able to ride on the backs of all the other parents willing to accept the risks and immunize their children. Since that meant that their child would likely never be exposed to the disease, there was no need to vaccinate. But the game has changed. Enough parents have opted out of vaccination that measles is now staging a comeback. I’m not saying whether you should vaccinate or not — only that the ground rules have changed, the risk is now greater, and that needs to be factored into your decision.
According to the medical establishment, the MMR vaccine for measles is completely safe unless a child has a severely weakened immune system, such as those undergoing treatment for cancer. Sure! Unfortunately, the establishment does not have the greatest track record when it comes to honestly disclosing the risks associated with vaccines. On the other hand, vaccines can work, and the disease rate for measles has been reduced by 99 percent in the U.S. at least partially because of them.
The flip side of the coin, however, reveals the risks of vaccination that, although they may only affect a small minority of children, are very real. Reactions to shots can be much more serious than a simple soreness in the area and low-grade fever. In addition, Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, is still used in many vaccines, although not in the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. As I said, the medical establishment and government bureaucrats are not necessarily the most honest voices when it comes to pronouncing on the dangers of childhood immunization. Even as government officials publically attest to the safety of childhood immunizations, the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has quietly been paying out well over a billion dollars in damages over the years as the result of “mild reactions” to immunizations.
For now, we each have to make our own decisions about whether to vaccinate or not based on our knowledge and beliefs. While it has been relatively safe to opt out of vaccination for some time now — and more people have chosen that route each year — that may be changing. The increase in globalization, travel, and immigration from poorer to wealthier countries exposes us to childhood diseases we thought were long gone. It’s essential to weigh the risks of the disease against the risks of immunization, and only you can choose what you think is right for your own child.
1 McLean, Huong. “Measles–United States, January-May 20, 2011.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 May 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 28 July 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6020a7.htm>.