The Return of Diseases Once Eliminated by Vaccination

Diseases largely eradicated in the United States a generation ago are returning. Measles was declared eliminated in 2000, yet the CDC reports 593 confirmed cases in 2014—the highest incidence in 20 years. In July, California’s public health department declared whooping cough a problem of “epidemic proportions.” Across America, children are getting sick and dying from these preventable diseases—in part because some parents (more than 10%) choose to skip or delay their children’s immunizations.

How Vaccines Work

Our bodies are bombarded by bacteria and viruses. For those that make their way inside, our immune system is on guard, waiting not only to kill the invaders but also to create memory cells that will help defeat them more quickly the next time they try to attack. Vaccines, which are weakened versions of a disease like polio or measles, rely on the memory of our immune system to combat the real danger if it eventually enters our bodies.

Vaccination is actually not new.  a crude, but effective form of vaccination was first used in India around 1,000 years to fight small pox (see video).

A history of Vaccination - NOVA

The Challenge to Vaccination

The assertion that vaccines could be linked to autism burst onto the international stage with the 1998 publication of a paper in the British journal The Lancet. Widespread media coverage of the claim followed. The paper, which suggested a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, was eventually retracted in 2010. Even before the complete retraction, however, in 2004, ten of the paper’s 13 authors cosigned a partial retraction of its main interpretation.

baby getting vaccinationWhat the public didn’t know in 1998 was that the now-retracted study, which involved just 12 children, would turn out to have some serious flaws—and even to contain apparently falsified data. The 12 years between its publication and its retraction, however, resulted in a serious decline in vaccination rates. In 1997, the year before the paper was published, measles vaccination rates in the United Kingdom were over 91%. They started to fall in 1998 and in 2003-2004 reached a nadir of just 80%, although rates were even lower than that in specific areas. Only in recent years have MMR vaccination rates begun climbing again in the U.K., reaching about 90% in 2013.

No link between autism and vaccination has been found.  However, more evidence is mounting that there is a strong genetic link to autism. It is now evident that there are many genetic paths to autism, and that some mutations leading to autism are not inherited but arise spontaneously in reproductive cells or during development. These mutations help to explain how autism can appear in families that previously had no history of the condition.

The Risks are Real

vaccination difficulty

Vaccination rates against most diseases are about 90%. Fewer than 1% of Americans forgo all vaccinations. Even so, in some states the anti-vaccine movement, aided by religious and philosophical state exemptions, is growing, says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He points to states like Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont—where more than 4.5% of kindergartners last year were unvaccinated for non-medical reasons—as examples of potential hot spots. Such states’ rates are four times the national average and illustrate a trend among select groups. The most vulnerable are infants who may be too young to be vaccinated, children with compromised immune systems and others who may be unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, scientists say.

“People assume this will never happen to them until it happens to them,” Offit says. “It’s a shame that’s the way we have to learn the lesson. There’s a human price for that lesson.”


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