As a health writer, it my job to read research papers. However, even before I became a health writer, I read a lot of research papers, just because I am a geek. Most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read cumbersome science reports, so when it comes to making a decision relating to the health of their families, they can feel overwhelmed. The vaccine question is like that. Overwhelming. There is a lot of information out there, and it’s all contradictory, so how do you know what to believe?
Fifty years ago, vaccinations were not a point of discussion as such, there was no argument, vaccinations were considered an incredible thing. This was because most parents feared the diseases that vaccinations now prevent, and with good reason, because most of those diseases can be deadly. Nowadays, the distance that has been created means that parents are not remembering just how devastating diseases like measles are, and they are choosing not to have their children vaccinated. It is because vaccines have been so effective in preventing disease that we now are in a place of privilege when we choose whether or not to vaccinate.
Vaccinations mean that many diseases that once killed thousands of people per year are now thankfully very rarely observed. Measles for example was once a disease that everyone knew the look of, whooping cough was once a familiar and dreaded sound, but since the invention and implementation of vaccinations, the cases of both these diseases are now low.
Measles used to infect over 43,000 Americans per year, and since the vaccination was implemented in 1963, the average is 60 cases per year. The downside of the lower prevalence of disease is complacency. In 1963, no parent would willfully refuse a measles vaccine if it were offered, because most of them would have seen or heard of a child in the neighborhood having been hospitalized from it.
Measles is deadly.It deserves to be feared. Factor in scare tactics and erroneous science claiming that the MMR vaccine is responsible for autism and the result is a rise in the number of parents opting out of having their children protected with a vaccination. For those who do try and research into vaccines, the unfortunate truth is that often those articles written by non-scientists are easier to read than the boring and wordy research papers are. So they get read more. Just because they are written with emotion rather than scientific fact they are often considered more palatable, and therefore they are believed.
Science, however is not a democracy, and its not the emotional experience of one individual. Science is not an opinion, and health science is nothing more than the facts. The fact is that pre-vaccination, many children died of measles each year, post-vaccination, they do not.
Despite this, parents still believe unproven claims that vaccinations are dangerous. I do not blame those that do, because many of the authors of these claims are convincing and charismatic, they present their opinions with emotion which is far more enticing than the cold hard facts.
An estimated seven percent of parents in the Boulder Valley School District opted out of having their children vaccinated in 2011. This statistic scares me. In most states in America, the exemption rate is around one percent. In 2009, the vaccination exemption rate in Washington state fell to under 8 percent and in reaction to this, Washington State passed a bill stating that exemptions would only be granted with the production of a registered doctors note. Following this action the vaccination exemption rate decreased significantly. There is a call for Colorado to follow suit from many healthcare professionals.
Colorado is one of 20 states in which parents can opt out, and out of those 20 it is one of the easiest. Most states require truly exceptional circumstances for vaccination rejection, and children that cannot provide an up-to-date vaccination certificate are denied school access. Not in Boulder. Here, a parent only has to write a note in order to not have their child vaccinated. It startles me that last year, almost 3,000 kindergarten children in Colorado did not receive vaccination due to this Personal Belief Exemption.
You might wonder why your decision not to vaccinate your child is anything other than your own personal, private business, and you may think that as long as you have your own children vaccinated, that they are safe regardless of what your neighbors are doing.
Unfortunately, it does not quite work like that. In every 100 children that are vaccinated, there are a few that will not receive immunity. These children for one reason or another come out of the doctor’s office having received the full dose of the recommended vaccines and are not immune. There is no way to tell if the vaccine that your child has received was effective or not until he or she is caught in a school where there is an outbreak. The higher the percentage of children in a school whose parents chose not to have vaccinated, the higher the chances of an outbreak.
With this in mind, it is clear that your decision to vaccinate your child affects the health and wellness of other children and families. When deadly diseases are the subject, it is important that the community acts as a whole to ensure that children are kept safe.
In December 2013, The Colorado Immunization Section of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent a letter to all the parents of students in Colorado Schools asking them to have their children vaccinated. This request was sent in an attempt to remind parents of the dire consequences of disease spread in a school situation, and outlined how and why immunization is important. However in the attached information sheets it was obvious that all parents had to do in order to exempt their children in vaccination was write a letter.
Surely in a time where there are an increased number of measles outbreaks not just in Colorado, but across the United States and Europe, the slack should be pulled on vaccination compliance. Maybe the decision should be taken out of the hands of parents and be made mandatory? That way the stress of trying to sift though the pseudo-science would be reduced.
The facts are that vaccinations save lives and prevent disease spread. Nobody can dispute that the thousands of children who died from measles before vaccinations were introduced would have lived.
Boulder is a beautiful city in which to raise children. Let’s keep it safe for them, too.