As September approaches, parents are beginning to bring their children to the doctor’s office for back-to-school checkups. One of the most important components of the school physical is vaccination. In Florida, children in both public and private schools are required to be immunized against many illnesses, including chicken pox, measles and pertussis.
Meanwhile, celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone and Kristin Cavallari caused recent media whirlwinds with their anti-vaccine views, while websites like know-vaccines.org urge Florida parents to avoid vaccinating their children. As children head back to school, it is important to revisit the importance of immunizations in our community.
Vaccines have a long and contentious history. As early as the 1800s, citizens have protested compulsory vaccines and questioned their safety. Led by celebrities, religious guides, and money-hungry “experts,” more and more parents across the United States have chosen not to vaccinate their children in recent years. Many parents fear that vaccines can cause autism, multiple sclerosis or SIDS.
In reality, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that vaccines cause any of these illnesses.
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In fact, Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 paper in The Lancet, showing that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism in children, was eventually retracted. Researchers were unable to replicate Wakefield’s study, and it came to light that he had falsified data and received financial compensation for testifying in court for many of the study’s subjects. In 2010, Wakefield, who is British, was removed from the medical register and barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.
Parents also choose not to vaccinate their children because they do not believe childhood illnesses are really very dangerous. On the contrary, about 164,000 people are killed each year by measles. Because of the Hib vaccine, less than 50 cases of Hib occur in the United States each year. Before the vaccine became available, 20,000 children contracted the disease and 1,000 of them died annually. Half of all infants who contract pertussis are hospitalized, and 1.6 percent of them die from the disease. It is clear that childhood illnesses are not only dangerous, but deadly.
Florida statues include an exemption clause for parents who object to the mandatory immunizations for schoolchildren on the basis of religion. This policy is dangerous not only to the unvaccinated children, but to their classmates and the surrounding community.
There are many types of people who cannot receive certain vaccines, such as pregnant women, people with HIV and cancer patients. If a critical proportion of the surrounding population is vaccinated, these individuals remain protected because contagious spread of the disease is extremely unlikely.
By choosing to exempt their children, anti-vaccine parents break down this concept of “herd immunity”. A study of vaccine exemptors in Colorado showed that for each 1 percent increase in exempted children in a school, the risk of pertussis outbreak increased by 12 percent. In addition, exempted children were 22.2 times more likely to contract measles and 5.9 times more likely to acquire pertussis compared to vaccinated children.
According to the World Health Organization, immunizations prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths each year.
The truth is simple: Vaccines save lives.
Parents choosing not to immunize their children are often convinced by celebrities, non-experts and scare tactics. It is essential that teachers, physicians and the rest of the general population remain educated about the importance of vaccines, so that we can encourage parents to vaccinate their children and prevent the spread of disease.
Corinne Solheid is a student at the UM Miller School of Medicine.