The number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children continues to grow. As a result, so do cases of preventable diseases like influenza, pertussis and measles.
It’s a trend that troubles OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
“We all look for cause-and-effect explanations when something goes wrong,” said Prescott, a physician and medical researcher. “So, when a young child gets vaccinated and a few months later is diagnosed with a condition like autism, it’s human nature to assume they’re linked. But they’re not, and many parents need a reality check.”
In 1998, a doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a paper falsely claiming he’d found a link between vaccines and autism. The paper has been retracted, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license, and numerous subsequent studies have shown no link between autism and any vaccine.
“Despite overwhelming evidence disproving Wakefield’s findings, this fake science has taken on a life of its own,” said Prescott.
A recent report found many U.S. cities fall below the 90 to 95 percent threshold for childhood mumps, measles and rubella vaccination needed for herd immunity—a term meaning enough people are vaccinated to protect everyone, not just those who’ve been vaccinated. Herd immunity also guards children with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated.
“In some rural areas, vaccination levels are now below 80 percent,” said OMRF’s Prescott. “With numbers like that, the question is not if there will be another outbreak; it’s when.”
For example, since being declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, measles has experienced a resurgence. Outbreaks like the one at Disneyland in California in 2014-15, which infected more than 130 people, are becoming increasingly common.
All told, there have been more than 2,000 new measles cases nationwide.
“Unless we make a big push to get vaccination rates back up, we can expect more children to get sick,” said Prescott. “And these are dangerous, potentially life-threatening illnesses.”
In Great Britain, where vaccination rates fell significantly following Wakefield’s study, public health authorities put forth a sustained, concerted campaign for childhood vaccinations. The rates have since climbed back to 95 percent.
Many U.S. states are now taking measures to boost immunization rates. And three—Alabama, California and West Virginia—have banned all non-medical exemptions for childhood vaccines.
“Those three states now have the highest vaccination rates in the country,” he said. “They also have the lowest incidence of vaccine-preventable disease. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”