In 2010, a pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak in California sickened 9,143 people and resulted in 10 infant deaths: the worst outbreak in 63 years (Centers for Disease Control 2011b). Researchers, suspecting that the primary cause of the outbreak was the waning strength of pertussis vaccines in older children, recommended a booster vaccination for 11–12-year-olds and also for pregnant women (Zacharyczuk 2011). Pertussis is most serious for babies; one in five needs to be hospitalized, and since they are too young for the vaccine themselves, it is crucial that people around them be immunized (Centers for Disease Control 2011b). Several states, including California, have been requiring the pertussis booster for older children in recent years with the hope of staving off another outbreak.
But what of people who do not want their children to have this vaccine or any other? That question is at the heart of a debate that has been simmering for years. Vaccines are biological preparations that improve immunity against a certain disease. Vaccines have contributed to the eradication and weakening of numerous infectious diseases including smallpox, polio, mumps, chicken pox, and meningitis.
However, many people express concern about potential negative side effects from vaccines. These concerns range from fears about overloading the child’s immune system to controversial reports about devastating side effects of the vaccines. One misapprehension is that the vaccine itself might cause the disease it is supposed to be immunizing against.
Another commonly circulated concern is that vaccinations, specifically the MMR vaccine (MMR stands for measles, mumps, and rubella), are linked to autism. The autism connection has been particularly controversial. In 1998, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published a study in Great Britain’s Lancet magazine that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. The report received a lot of media attention, resulting in British immunization rates decreasing from 91 percent in 1997 to almost 80 percent by 2003, accompanied by a subsequent rise in measles cases (Devlin 2008). A prolonged investigation by the British Medical Journal proved that not only was the link in the study nonexistent, but that Dr. Wakefield had falsified data in order to support his claims (CNN 2011). Dr. Wakefield was discredited and stripped of his license, but the doubt still lingers in many parents’ minds.
In the United States, many parents still believe in the now discredited MMR-autism link and refuse to vaccinate their children. Other parents choose not to vaccinate for various reasons like religious or health beliefs. In one instance, a boy whose parents opted not to vaccinate returned home to the U.S. after a trip abroad; no one yet knew he was infected with measles. The boy exposed 839 people to the disease and caused 11 additional cases of measles, all in other unvaccinated children including one infant who had to be hospitalized. According to a study published in Pediatrics (2010), the outbreak cost the public sector $10,376 per diagnosed case. The study further showed that the intentional non-vaccination of those infected occurred in students from private schools, public charter schools, and public schools in upper-socioeconomic areas (Sugerman et al. 2010).
Consider these questions about immunization:
- Should parents be forced to immunize their children?
- How does this story of vaccines in a high-income region compare to that in a low-income region, like sub-Saharan Africa, where populations are often eagerly seeking vaccines rather than refusing them?
- Do you believe all children should receive vaccinations?
Vaccinations may hurt a little… but the diseases they can prevent can hurt a lot more! Immunization vaccinations are essential. They protect against things like measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). Immunizations are important for adults as well as for children. Here’s why:
Your immune system helps your body fight germs by producing substances to combat them. Once it does, the immune system “remembers” the germ and can fight it again. Vaccines contain germs that have been killed or weakened. When given to a healthy person, the vaccine triggers the immune system to respond and thus build immunity.
Before vaccines, people became immune only by actually getting a disease and surviving it. Immunizations are an easier and less risky way to become immune.