In a recent Republican presidential candidate debate, Texas governor Rick Perry was singled out by many of the other candidates due to his controversial decision to mandate the vaccination for Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV in Texas. One of the most notable comments was by the candidate Michelle Bachmann, who claimed that the vaccine could lead to mental retardation and claimed that it was a dangerous drug. Now I mention this not to assert my political opinion, but to highlight a serious and dangerous misconception rampant in this country: That vaccines cause autism and significant other health problems.
This misconception was started by an English doctor named Andrew Wakefield who used fraudulent data in 1998 to show a connection between autism and vaccines. His use of fraudulent data has been exposed and he has been barred from practicing medicine in Britain for his deceit. Unfortunately, before this was discovered, some famous people, most notably the former Playboy bunny and (mediocre) actress Jenny McCarthy, took up this cause and spoke out in public against vaccines. Now that the Internet has allowed anyone with a keyboard to publish things, misinformation about vaccines has been proliferated and leads to a disturbing statistic: only 52% of Americans believe that vaccines are safe.
The medical data overwhelmingly shows that vaccines are safe, cost effective, and have had a positive effect on the collective health of our species. At the beginning of the 20th century, infection was by far the most common cause of death in this country. Advances in hygiene, antibiotic, and vaccines have made it relatively uncommon to die from infection. The diseases that we vaccinate for, such as polio, measles, mumps and rubella have caused death and misery. Small pox was eliminated due to vaccination efforts. These diseases spread easily and rampantly, causing suffering wherever they went. Now that they are so rare, people do not fear these awful diseases.
Vaccines have become a victim of their own success. We no longer fear the diseases prevented by them. However, these vague rumors of vaccines being harmful to the health of children allow one to rationalize the feelings of discomfort that comes from getting a shot. How many people do you know that have died from polio, or mumps, or rubella? It is important to not let emotions override what is the right choice.
So, if you are one of the 52% of the people who think vaccines are safe, should you be concerned if some subset of the population will not get a vaccine? They are making their own choice right? Unfortunately, it could have an effect on all of us. If you have been exposed to a virus that you have been vaccinated against, there is no 100% guarantee that this virus will not infect you. The reason vaccines are so effective is that they significantly lower the likelihood of infection per exposure. If everyone has a lower chance, the number of new infections with that virus will decrease until, eventually there will be insignificantly small amounts of virus around. If not everyone is vaccinated then those who aren’t will get the virus and pass it on to other non-vaccinated people and some vaccinated people (remember the vaccine is not a 100% guarantee). This concept is called herd immunity. The entire herd needs to be vaccinated for it to work properly. Certain areas with lower rates of vaccination have seen puzzling outbreaks of measles and mumps. The people who were not vaccinated were not the only ones who were affected.
When public figures speak out, people listen. Jenny McCarthy and Michelle Bachman have a responsibility to be more mindful of the effects from what they say. These figures can do significant damage to the public health of our people by decreasing vaccination rates.
No one wants to see outbreaks of diseases we once thought all but defeated making a comeback.
Dr. Bruce Feinberg