Vaccination opponents in this country have one thing in common with the Taliban and al-Qaida: They use fear and rumor to dissuade people from immunizing children.
The Islamic militants actually go further; they intimidate parents with force and have killed aid workers trying to vaccinate children against deadly diseases. That’s a big reason polio rates are spiking in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia.
The militants claim that vaccination is actually a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children and that the aid workers are American spies. That sounds outlandish, but so is a televangelist persuading the faithful that God, not vaccines, would protect their children from disease.
The preacher changed his tune and offered immunization clinics when at least 21 in his congregation – including many children – were infected with measles after an infected person visited his North Texas megachurch.
While some Americans have religious objections to vaccines and other forms of medical treatment, most of the anti-vaccine sentiment is based on fears and rumors that have been scientifically discredited.
The worst canard is that the childhood vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) is linked to autism, a claim made in the late 1990s by an English doctor. His research has been thoroughly repudiated, and he’s been stripped of his right to practice in Great Britain.
Still, the autism fear lingers and is often transferred to other vaccines, including those protecting against pertussis (whooping cough) and influenza. Both diseases can be deadly to very young children.
Unfortunately, newborns can’t be inoculated, so their safety depends on everyone who comes in contact with them being immunized against infection. Pregnant women also should be vaccinated to pass on protection to their babies.
Whooping cough was at epidemic levels in Washington state last year, but rates have been declining – thanks in large part to an aggressive pro-vaccination campaign by public health officials and 2011 legislation limiting vaccination exemptions for schoolchildren. By mid-July, Washington had 419 cases of whooping cough compared to 3,237 cases in the same period last year.
That number is still too high, but at least it’s not at levels like it is in other parts of the country. Again, Texas is a hotbed, with nearly 2,000 cases reported so far this year. Two infants, too young to be vaccinated, have died.
Now we’re entering into flu season, and again it’s important for everyone who can be immunized to get a flu shot – ideally this month or next, says the Centers for Disease Control. Keeping infection rates low helps protect those who are unable to get the shot, including children under the age of 6 months.
No, the flu shot doesn’t cause the flu, as some fear. And yes, some people do experience reactions to shots, but they’re usually mild and far outweighed by the lifesaving benefits the shot provides.
About 200,000 Americans, many of them elderly, will be hospitalized with the flu this year, and between 3,000 and 49,000 deaths will be flu-related, according to the CDC. Those are statistics that could be significantly lowered if more people got a flu shot.