Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Message to the Anti-Vaxxers (Please Forward)

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

In November 2009, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report about an outbreak of mumps in Rockland County and Brooklyn, New York, parts of New Jersey and Quebec, Canada. A more recent report in Discover Magazine said that the number of confirmed or suspected cases in Brooklyn alone was now approximately 600. According to a post on Phil Plait's Discover Magazine blog, the entire United States has only 300 cases of mumps in a normal year, so that makes the situation in Brooklyn extremely abnormal. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has an even bigger problem — 6,000 cases in the past year. The reason behind the outbreaks: the anti-vaccine movement.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember childhood epidemics all too well. Those memories include people living in iron lungs and vivid images of schoolmates with shriveled arms and braced legs — results of the global poliomyelitis epidemic.

In the 1950s and '60s Jonas Salk was recognized around the world as a hero for creating the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Millions of children willingly stood in long lines at school to get vaccinated. Here, children show off their shots to friends awaiting their turn; scenes like this were played out everywhere in the U.S.

Polio was one of the few childhood diseases for which a vaccine existed when Divinipotent Daily was a girl. Epidemics spread through school systems constantly. Diseases I have personally lived through include measles, mumps, chicken pox and rubella. All were intensely uncomfortable. I can't imagine how many months of school I missed — measles alone meant three weeks of quarantine.

By the end of the 1960s, vaccines had been developed for measles, mumps and rubella — the famous MMR trio — and fairly quickly, these diseases all but disappeared in the U.S. But the news out of Brooklyn makes one wonder. If people are not vaccinated for mumps, they are probably fair game for measles and rubella, too. All it will take to trigger an outbreak is contact with an infected person.

And in this age of global travel, contact is not difficult to arrange. All of these diseases are active in many parts of the world — particularly in the Third World, where adequate vaccines are not available (the CDC says 43% of the world's nations have no mumps vaccination program). The Brooklyn case is believed to have started when an infected child from the U.K. visited the U.S. this summer. If the anti-vax trend continues, tragedy can't be far behind.

So, sensible parents, be sure to keep your children's vaccinations current. And for you anti-vaxxers, I've put together a little tour of some of the misery you're choosing to risk visiting upon your offspring, courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO). And make no mistake, with so many people surrendering their reason and decision-making to unscientific scare tactics, yesterday's "community immunity" — the concept that unvaccinated children are protected by the high vaccination rates of the children around them — is on the decline.

Say hello to measles. This is a disease so deadly that, as recently as 1999, it killed 873,000 people, almost all of them under the age of five. Because of its deadliness, in 2001 measles became the focus of a global immunization effort involving the CDC, Red Cross, Red Crescent, the United Nations Foundation, UNICEF and the WHO. By 2005, deaths had been reduced by more than half. But as the CDC points out, "Millions of children still remain at risk from measles. Malnourished and un-immunized children under five years of age, especially infants, are at high risk of contracting measles and are most vulnerable to dying from the disease."

Mumps. The AAP describes mumps as "a disease that is characterized by swelling of the salivary glands. Prior to the vaccine that was introduced in 1967, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 cases of mumps occurred in the U.S. each year." 

Complications of mumps include potential deafness, encephalitis, meningitis, orchitis in boys, and ovarian swelling in girls.

Rubella, also known as German measles, looks like this. It's particularly nasty. Says the AAP, "Rubella is a respiratory viral infection characterized by mild respiratory symptoms and low-grade fever, followed by a rash lasting about 3 days. In children, the illness may not be diagnosed since the rash may be mild and mimic other conditions. Rubella vaccination is particularly important for non-immune women who may become pregnant because of the risk for serious birth defects if they acquire the disease during pregnancy. Birth defects include deafness, cataracts, heart defects, mental retardation, and liver and spleen damage (at least a 20% chance of damage to the fetus if a woman is infected early in pregnancy)." 

In the 1960s, a rubella epidemic infected about one in ten pregnant women in the U.S. The legacy: between 20,000 and 30,000 children with birth defects including hearing loss, cardiac problems, vision loss, mental retardation and other developmental disabilities.

And what about polio — the disease that first made childhood vaccinations so popular? According to the WHO, another global vaccination effort has all but eradicated polio in most countries, but it remains active in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. And as the WHO points out, "As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. Between 2003 and 2005, 25 previously polio-free countries were re-infected due to imports of the virus."

Hey, anti-vaxxers, here's what an iron lung looks like. Imagine your child in one of those.

"There is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity."
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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