The current outbreak of measles in several states has caused unfortunate reactions from politicians, who have made some knee-jerk remarks and then had to walk them back. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie both stepped in it last week and wound up scraping their shoes. Will their remarks follow them on their quest for the Republican presidential nomination? Only time will tell.
It seems the debate is between personal choice and public health. States that require vaccinations for school enrollment have the highest rate of immunity (think Mississippi) and those that allow exemptions for personal choice or religion are lagging by a fairly large percentage. Montana, the state in which I now live, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation and has experienced vicious outbreaks of whooping cough, another childhood disease prevalent in the past. So much for “Home of the Free” and all that.
The outbreak epicenter is California, where it is thought to have been introduced by international visitors to Disneyland. But it quickly spread to more than a dozen other states even though measles was officially declared eliminated in this country 15 years ago.
The anti-vaccination movement began on the heels of a 1998 (now discredited) British study that linked measles vaccinations to autism. One of the study’s authors had his medical license revoked after he was found to have a financial stake in the findings. Nevertheless, a small group of parents persist in withholding immunizations in an effort to protect their children. While I respect their motivation, the ramifications are huge.
What they fail to realize is that their actions put other children, those with cancer and compromised immune systems or those younger than one year, at much greater risk. Their reluctance to vaccinate also apparently caused the resurgence of diseases once deemed eradicated. Experts say a 90 percent vaccination rate is necessary to protect those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. It’s called “herd immunity.”
According to the CDC, measles is highly infectious even prior to the appearance of symptoms. The pathogens can remain in the air and on floors and furniture for two hours after the infected person has left the scene. Therefore, it’s almost impossible for the unvaccinated to protect themselves from the disease.
Of most childhood diseases, once thought mild or benign, measles is more virulent and consequential than mumps or chickenpox. Side effects can include loss of hearing and impairment of sight, meningitis and even death. In the ’60s, before immunizations were developed, author Roald Dahl wrote of losing his daughter to meningitis brought on by a case of measles.
To involve politicians in this debate is ludicrous and can be the pitfall that tanks a career, or at least a campaign. Decisions must be based on science, but even with the data available, parents have considerations and fears that are personal.
I admit to my own ambivalence about inoculations. When I was training horses, I had a tetanus toxoid shot every year. But every time I was injured they insisted I have a tetanus anti-toxin booster anyway. Sorry, but that’s overkill. Although I never was inoculated for influenza, I did agree to have the pneumonia shot once. The problem is no one seems to agree on how long it’s effective.
Since I’m not a politician, I’ll stick my neck out and say that for those worried about side effects from vaccinations, there are options. One is to ask your doctor for single-dose injections limited to one disease. This allows the system time to make antibodies to only one pathogen. Homeopathic physicians also recommend a remedy to boost the immune response just prior to receiving vaccinations. It’s been my experience that works.
It’s also my understanding that single-dose vials do not contain preservatives, of which thimerosol was the most controversial.
When I was a child, polio was the great scourge and each summer we were forbidden to go to public swimming pools. The Salk vaccine fixed that. Now, thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, polio has been eradicated from all countries except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, where vaccinations unfortunately have become politically volatile. Like I said, politics and public health are like oil and water; they just don’t mix.