I’ve written about both sides of the childhood vaccination debate as objectively as possible over the years. I’ve chosen to vaccinate my kids, but until recently, I could, at least emotionally, understand why some of my friends and acquaintances chose otherwise. However, after researching the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccinations, talking extensively to doctors about the issue and learning about the recent outbreaks of deadly, but vaccine-preventable diseases like pertussis, I’ve realized I’m no longer objective.
I don’t blame the parents who choose not to vaccinate. I understand that fierce protective parental urge. But we can no longer blame vaccines. And we are potentially doing more harm than we understand when we choose not to immunize.
Here’s why. Most parents who haven’t vaccinated their kids have made that choice because of the fear that ingredients in the shots (such as Thimerosol—an organic mercury-containing compound) could cause autism or other developmental delays. Yet, the 1998 study that indicated a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism has been firmly debunked. The study was based on a sample of only 12 children, and it has been renounced by 10 of its co-authors and by the medical magazine, Lancet, which published it.
Since then, there have been a number of studies that have found no correlation between autism or any other developmental delays and vaccinations.
“While I think parents are right to be cautious about their children, vaccines have been proven again and again to be safe,” says Dr. James Whitehouse, infectious disease specialist with Asheville Infectious Disease. “Parents are still reacting to that one article that has been retracted. The best we can do is continue working to re-educate parents about how safe and effective our vaccines are.”
Whitehouse also notes that there’s been a dramatic increase in autism levels despite the fact that Thimerosal has been removed from all vaccines except for a few multi-dose flu shots. And despite the decreases in the numbers of children being vaccinated.
“You get three times more mercury from eating a tuna fish sandwich than you do from a vaccine containing Thimerosal,” says Cynthia Yancey, Buncombe County medical health director.
So, there’s no connection between autism and vaccinations and the primary ingredient that spooked parents has been removed from most vaccines anyway.
Why do parents still choose not to vaccinate their children?
“Parents I talk to are concerned because of previous press,” Whitehouse says. “They’re also reacting to folklore — other people sharing stories they’ve ‘heard’ about children having bad reactions. Finally, people say things like, ‘I still got the flu even though I got the flu vaccine’. The truth is many things cause respiratory illness in winter. Flu’s just one of those things.”
There’s also the reality that, especially in this country, most people have never seen these vaccine-preventable diseases or known anyone who has contracted them, Whitehouse and Yancey both emphasize.
But that’s changing.
A lot of doctors are currently seeing pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough, a disease that’s preventable via the DTaP vaccine.
And children, American children, are dying from this disease and its complications.
At least ten children, most of them babies, died in 2010 in California from pertussis. Thousands of cases of the disease were reported last year — in fact, we had the largest outbreak of pertussis in this country since 1959.
California has one of the highest “exemption” rates in the country, which means that, even though children entering public school are required to be up-to-date on their vaccinations, parents can claim a “religious exemption” and get their unvaccinated children into schools.
Which is happening here as well, as has been for years. In fact, Buncombe County has the highest number of exemptions in the state, Yancey says. The percentage of religious exemptions in our schools this year is 4.63 — as compared to the state level of about half of one percent.
And there were 68-recorded cases of pertussis last year in Buncombe, which is more than the number of cases seen in several years combined, according to Yancey. Whitehouse adds that at least two babies were hospitalized at Mission Hospitals with the disease this year.
Hmmmm. According to the Centers for Disease Control, vaccination rates need to be at around 93 percent of the population for pertussis to stay away. Yancey says Buncombe County’s rates of vaccination against the disease are around 80 percent.
“Are we going to wait until we see a baby die of pertussis here to restart vaccinating our children?” asks Yancey.
I hope not.
Whitehouse suggests that parents looking for up-to-date vaccination data on visit the CDC’s web site at http://www.cdc.org and http://www.immunize.org.