By Julia Long
It would be frightening for one to think that perhaps the greatest danger to human beings is a microscopic organism that can neither be seen nor controlled. For centuries, humans have grappled with disease, and finally, in the last century, the beasts that are virulent pathogens have been bridled by vaccines.
This fear however has been diluted in the past 20 years. People living in developed nations with ample access to vaccines have become desensitized to the consequences of infectious diseases, and consequently, less importance has been placed on vaccinating oneself and one’s children. With the publication of a false study linking vaccines to autism in the late 1990s, the “anti-vaxxer” campaign had officially been ignited. Even the East student body is somewhat divided on the issue.
The principle of this campaign is that it is an individual’s decision to get vaccinated, and the risk of infection rests solely on the individual. Those not in favor of vaccinations have concerns primarily regarding the safety and reliability of vaccines, and question particular ingredients. Delaying vaccinations until a child has reached a certain age has become more prevalent, and more people are deviating from recommended vaccination schedules than before.
This rise in vaccine ambivalence has in turn led to a disturbing national public health trend. Over the past 15 years, there has been an increased regularity in large-scale outbreaks, the most tangible of which are diseases such as measles and mumps. Both diseases are widely vaccinated across the United States and the world, but in recent years, spikes in outbreaks of these dangerous diseases have become more common—the largest series of measles outbreaks in 20 years occurred in 2014. The vast majority of those infected were not vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Vaccination, many argue, is not personal matter, at least not as much as it is a public duty. While more and more people choose not to get vaccinated, there are still vulnerable populations who cannot get vaccinated, such as the very young, the elderly, and those who, for whatever medical reason, cannot be inoculated. These people depend on the protection of the immunity of the general population to prevent them from getting sick. When people in the general population who aren’t a part of this vulnerable demographic choose not to get a vaccine, it’s easier for dangerous pathogens to reach and infect vulnerable people. The question then remains: are people who can, but do not vaccinate themselves or their children responsible for the health of the community at large?
Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician and author from Austin, TX, discussed the importance of a high overall immunization rate at an interview with parents at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“There are communities that are kind of [a] ground zero for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases because the children in those communities are unvaccinated or undervaccinated,” said Brown. “It’s very important for [parents] to realize that [their] decision to vaccinate impacts all of our children.”
Brown also addressed parents’ concerns over the safety of their vaccines.
“Vaccines never contained harmful amounts of mercury, but there is a bit of a back story there,” Brown added. “What parents need to know is that thimerosal, the preservative that contained ethyl mercury, was never proven to cause a health problem and that the vaccines that parents are giving to their children today [as of 2001] do not use thimerosal as a preservative.”
While the controversy regarding the safety of vaccinations has grown over the past several years, infectious disease professionals agree: vaccines are the most effective, safe, and available tool we have as a society to fight dangerous pathogens. Studies showing the correlation between early childhood vaccines and autism have been retracted, and according to the CDC, vaccines produce immunity in over 90 percent of all cases.
It’s also important to stay on schedule with vaccines, because missed vaccine dates may not have dire consequences on the individual, but pathogens can still be passed on to vulnerable members in the community. Serious complications can arise during natural immunization and exposure to the illness, whereas immunization through vaccines is very low- risk and very rarely has side effects.
The most striking part of the vaccine debate is the desperate need for widespread vaccine access outside of developed nations. Cheap and consistent vaccines are hard to come by and valued greatly in many parts of the world, and many areas are plagued with illnesses that are easily prevented with vaccines, like whooping cough, measles, and chickenpox.
The goal of vaccines is to eradicate disease and keep the public safe, and while thaT goal is getting increasingly closer, it is still just out of reach.