Warning: I will be a little more... um, blunt.. than usual in this blog. I make no apologies, because this is a very serious topic.
Someone I know posted the following article to Facebook with the caption, "When you don't vaccinate your kids, you contribute to this:"
Disneyland Measles Outbreak Hits 59 Cases And Counting
But what was the most-troubling about his post was an anti-vaxxer who responded to it; this anti-vaxxer was suggesting that: 1) measles isn't a deadly disease, 2) it can be treated by homeopathic herbs and essential oils, 3) contracting the disease will build natural immunities, and 4) we should be more concerned about the amount of sugar in our food than the measles. Unfortunately, this person was being serious. Adding insult to injury, when she was corrected with information from the World Health Organization (WHO) which pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people die each year from the measles, this anti-vaxxer changed her story and claimed that since only 145,700 people died from the measles in 2013, that's only 0.000024% of the world's 6 billion people, so measles isn't that big of a deal. This anti-vaxxer was completely blind to the fact that we were discussing 145,700 people who didn't need to die because the cause of their deaths was easily-preventable. In other words, what she really meant was - since the people who are dying from the measles aren't people that she knows personally, their lives obviously don't matter.
Before I continue, I need to state that I passionately agree with my friend's original statement: if you do not vaccinate your kids, you are contributing to potentially lethal outbreaks. Let me put this another way, and let me be very clear as to how I feel about vaccinations: if you are part of the current crowd of crazy people who oppose vaccinations for easily-preventable diseases - you are an idiot. Period. End-of-story. And if you are a parent who refuses to vaccinate your children, and your children contract an easily-preventable disease - you are a terrible, wicked, stupid, horrible, despicable person. Child Protective Services should take your children away from you because you are endangering your children, and you are obviously too inept to be a parent.
Let me dispel some of the anti-vaxxer's arguments with actual facts about the measles from the WHO at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs286/en/, (note that the added emphasis is mine):
- Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
- In 2013, there were 145,700 measles deaths globally – about 400 deaths every day or 16 deaths every hour.
- Measles vaccination resulted in a 75% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2013 worldwide.
- In 2013, about 84% of the world's children received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday through routine health services – up from 73% in 2000.
- During 2000-2013, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 15.6 million deaths making measles vaccine one of the best buys in public health.
Measles is a highly contagious, serious disease caused by a virus. In 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.
The disease remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. Approximately 145,700 people died from measles in 2013 – mostly children under the age of 5.
Measles is caused by a virus in the paramyxovirus family and it is normally passed through direct contact and through the air. The virus infects the mucous membranes, then spreads throughout the body. Measles is a human disease and is not known to occur in animals.
Accelerated immunization activities have had a major impact on reducing measles deaths. During 2000-2013, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 15.6 million deaths. Global measles deaths have decreased by 75% from an estimated 544 200 in 2000 to 145 700 in 2013.
Let me reiterate some of those facts: immunizations have reduced the number of deaths by 95% in just the past 35 years (from 2,600,000 fatalities to 145,700 fatalities). When we discuss childhood immunizations for diseases like the measles, we are not discussing whether your child will stay home from school for a couple of days with a temperature - we are talking about preventing your child's death. Your child could die because of your parental incompetence, and all it takes is a simple vaccine to remove the possibility.
This anti-vaxxer also suggested that natural medicine was sufficient for the measles, which is a ludicrous proposal; if natural medicine was sufficient, then we would not have had millions of people dying each year throughout the history of humanity. I have met several people in my life who have grown up under the mistaken premise that centuries of naturalistic alchemy was more effective than present-day medicine. I would love to point out that for the thousands of years that homo-sapiens have walked the face of the planet, the life-expectancy of the average human was ½ or ¼ of what it is now. During that time, thousands of pseudo-doctors prescribed any number of naturally-based remedies, yet the majority of people could still expect to die before the age of 30 or 40, and millions upon millions of children died before they left infancy due to disease. In contrast, modern medical science has introduced thousands of real cures based on real science which have produced real results in terms of preventing disease and improving the quality of life. Natural medicine may make your feel better about yourself in an isolated, narrow-minded, yuppie universe, but a host of readily-available facts tell a decidedly different story: science actually works, whereas visiting a modern-day witch doctor does not.
I grew up in a time where contracting a large number of easily-contractible diseases was still a frightening fact of life, when millions of lives were seriously impacted by global diseases like measles, polio, etc. In the decades that preceded my childhood, a plethora of deadly diseases ravaged our society; diseases like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, etc. Times are vastly different now; in today's United States we are blessed with a society where decades of successful vaccination programs have reduced these diseases to the point where apathy and complacency have set in, and as a result we are forced to endure the idiocy of anti-vaxxers who think that vaccines are no longer necessary.
However, vaccines are still just as necessary as they were in the past. An essential part of our country's life-blood is immigration; millions of new immigrants settle within our borders each year, and most of these people are coming from countries which have no regular vaccination program. If your unvaccinated children go to school with children who have inadvertently brought diseases to the United States - your child will likely become infected. And as our world becomes increasingly more global, your child's chances of travelling outside the United States increases, and immunizations are necessary to prevent overseas exposure to diseases that we no longer worry about domestically. For example, thanks to a successful vaccination program, the United States hasn't seen a case of polio since 1979; however, when I was in India a few years ago, I met someone whose brother was recently paralyzed by polio.
If there was no measles vaccine and people were still dying to the left and to the right, people like this anti-vaxxer and everyone like her would be clamoring for a measles vaccine. You might recall the recent Ebola panic; suddenly everyone was screaming for a vaccine. I am completely confident that science will eventually come up with a vaccine for Ebola, and I am just as certain that 100 years after its debut the world will have anti-vaxxers who think that they just need to apply a homeopathic salve until they build up their immunity to Ebola. (There should be a special category in the Darwin Awards for anti-vaxxers.) Just because we don't see a specific disease in our day-to-day lives, that doesn't mean that it isn't a threat to the rest of the world.
I understand that some parents were unnecessarily frightened by a popular myth that was floating around which suggested that the MMR (Measles/Mumps/Rubella) vaccine could cause autism. That theory has long-since been debunked, but a few ill-educated people are unwilling to let it go. However, even if the infinitesimally-small chance of autism was remotely true, the theoretical number of people actually affected by the risk of autism would still be staggeringly-less than the number of lives that are actually saved by vaccinations. Penn and Teller put together a presentation which beautifully illustrates this point (Warning: Foul Language):
I have wasted enough time and effort on this subject, so I will leave you with a final parting thought: vaccinations have a proven track record of saving lives. If you are an anti-vaxxer, I do not care which stupid theory you are adhering to - you are just wrong. If you believe that natural medicine is the cure for everything - you are just wrong. Or if you believe that vaccines were designed by evil pharmaceutical companies to get rich - you are just wrong. Or if you believe that the side-effects from vaccines are worse than the disease - you are just wrong.
The simple fact is - vaccines save millions of lives each year. If you are too foolish to be immunized, perhaps you are doing the world a favor if you die from an easily-preventable disease and your genes are removed from the global gene pool so humanity can evolve past your demonstrably-lower level of intelligence. However, if you are a parent and you refuse to immunize your children, I will state once more - for the record - that you are a terrible, wicked, stupid, horrible, despicable person.
Since the time that I published this blog, several relevant articles have been published on this topic, so I have decided to periodically update this blog with pointers to articles that I think will add to this discussion.
And even though this subject isn't funny, there are a few humorous posts on the subject: