“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection... is just flat-out wrong... Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan.” Michele Bachmann’s vitriolic claims reveal the wily persistence of anti-vaccine sentiments, spawned by Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 paper in The Lancet. Now, more than half of patients express concerns that vaccines are dangerous, according to a 2010 paper in Pediatrics.
Who is right? Are the governments and medical colleges of all developed nations staging a vast conspiracy? Or, was Wakefield lying? The British Medical Journal concluded the latter, calling Wakefield’s paper “an elaborate fraud.” The Lancet rescinded his paper. To boot, the UK General Medical Council barred Wakefield from practicing medicine, citing “dishonest” practices and “serious professional misconduct.”
In contrast to Wakefield’s spurious claims, vaccine refusal has been linked to dire consequences. Unvaccinated children are 23 times more likely to develop whooping cough and 6.5 times more likely to be hospitalized with pneumonia or pneumococcal disease, compared to their vaccinated peers.
Vaccines are patently effective in preventing 13 diseases, including polio, diphtheria, and measles. Possible complications related to these diseases range from a severe rash to brain damage, paralysis, and death. For those who contract measles, one in a thousand suffer brain inflammation, potentially resulting in mental retardation, and one to three per thousand die. Immunizations lowered measles infection rates from over 60,000 Canadian cases per year to an average of just 199 cases. In 1979, vaccines successfully eradicated smallpox, a disease that claimed 300,000,000 lives in the 1900s, over nine times the deaths from World War I and II combined.
Smallpox aside, vaccine-preventable diseases are not dead–yet. Well-intentioned but misguided vaccine dissenters place their community in danger. For a time, the unvaccinated benefit from the “herd effect”. When 80 to 90% of the community is vaccinated, disease transmission is so low that even unvaccinated members are safe. Herd immunity is essential for protecting the immunocompromised (those whose immune systems do not properly function) and infants too young to receive vaccines. However, as vaccination rates decrease, so does the efficacy of herd immunity, sometimes with deadly outcomes. Some Bay Area schools in California boast a 40% vaccine refusal rate. The state is now in its worst whooping cough epidemic since the 1940s. Last year, 9,143 Californians contracted pertussis. Ten infants died.
The “prevention” is safer than the disease. The approval process in Canada and other developed nations is rigorous. Given the millions that receive vaccines, the safety profile is outstanding. Allergic reactions, while possible, are rare. Common side effects should not tarnish the reputation of vaccines. Rather, they indicate a positive immune response, producing antibodies to fight the real infection.
Vaccines. They’re necessary. They’re safe. They’re magical.