Vaccinations keep everyone safe, not just the vaccinated

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The measles, like the milkman and record players, have become synonymous with the childhoods of our grandparents, relics of the past that have become obsolete. Thanks to the MMR vaccine, given in the United States to children as young as 12 months, measles has been essentially stamped out from our population, along with other diseases such as the chicken pox, mumps, rubella, polio, and more. Vaccines like MMR have prevented people across the world from contracting potentially life-threatening illnesses, eradicating some diseases almost completely.

It can be easy to think of diseases like the measles as extinct and non-threatening, since we are so rarely exposed to them. We forget, then, that these diseases are not just gone thanks to some medical miracle. They are gone because we have vaccinated and have continued to vaccinate our children, and if we are not vigilant in regards to vaccinations, those diseases can return very easily.

This is exactly the case in Romania, where a measles outbreak has infected over 3,400 people in the past year and killed at least 17. Between 2007 and 2013, Romania’s MMR vaccination rates dropped from 97 percent to 88 percent, falling far below the 95 percent vaccination threshold recommended to interrupt disease transmission. A majority of the cases were found in infants under 12 months old, too young to get the vaccine, or in children from one to four years old, too young to get the recommended second dosage of the vaccine.

In Romania, the anti-vaccination movement is strong and growing stronger. Romanian celebrities such as Olivia Steer, a former TV presenter, and various religious groups have claimed that vaccines like MMR can cause autism and asthma, scaring parents and spreading misinformation. They advocate for parents’ choice in vaccinating and making the best health decisions for their children, and unfortunately, they are gaining supporters.

In anti-vaccine rhetoric, it sounds like their ideas are valid. Parents should be able to make choices that are best for their children, and to force vaccines upon them is to take away their medical liberties. Parents, however, are often not medical experts or scientists, and therefore are often not qualified to make complex healthcare decisions for their children.

The arguments used by the anti-vaccination movement are also not grounded in scientific fact. One of the largest arguments, that vaccines are linked to and cause autism, is based on a now-retracted British study from 1998. Andrew Wakefield, who led the study, was stripped of his medical license in 2011 after it was discovered that he had misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 patients involved in the study. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also released a list of more than 40 studies that find no link between vaccines and autism.

Furthermore, when a parent decides not to vaccinate their child, their child is not the only person affected by that decision. If a child is not vaccinated for the measles, that child runs the risk of both contracting the disease and spreading the disease. Every unvaccinated child decreases the population’s herd immunity, the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population resulting from a high proportion of immune individuals. Herd immunity protects those who are unable to receive vaccinations, either because they are younger than 12 months, have allergies to ingredients in the vaccines, or face other medical issues.

So what can you possibly say to a parent of an infant too young for the MMR vaccine who was exposed to the measles by an unvaccinated child and dies as a result? Do you point them to pseudo scientific studies about autism? Do you talk to them about medical liberties and the democratic risk that we take when we force people to get vaccinated? Do you tell them that the parents of that unvaccinated child made a decision for their child that they thought was best?

We have the ability to leave diseases like the measles in the past. We have the ability to protect our children from contracting potentially life-threatening illnesses and to protect people who are unable to protect themselves with vaccines. But we must be consistently vigilant and remember that these diseases only stay dead if we continue to vaccinate. We only need to look at Romania to see that diseases like the measles can rear their heads again if we continue to believe the anti-vaccination rhetoric.