A recent study in the journal Pediatrics confirmed that there are significantly more risks associated with not vaccinating children than there are with vaccinating them. The study examined rates of pertussis (whooping cough) in California and compared them to rates in areas where parents withheld vaccines from their children. The study found that people who weren’t vaccinated were 2½ times more likely to live in an area with high levels of whooping cough.
Why is this important? According to the study, “In 2010, 9,120 cases of pertussis were reported in California, more than any other year since 1947.” How could this happen in the United States in the 21st century? Why would parents withhold one of the most effective preventers of communicable diseases in the world?
Much of the controversy swirls around the belief that vaccines cause or increase the likelihood of autism. An article in the The Lancet indicated that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine supported this evidence; however, the article was completely retracted in 2010 after the London Sunday Times and the British General Medical Council uncovered the author’s conflicts of interest and manipulation of evidence. To stress this point, an article in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy , noted that “The alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”
But the myth lives on despite numerous studies, like this one from August of 2013 in The Journal of Pediatrics , that continue to examine—and reject—possible connections between vaccines and autism, including the “too-many-vaccines-cause-autism” argument. There is also debate that the U.S. Centers of Disease is hiding its own data linking autism and mercury in vaccines, but a review of the study and original raw data by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) debunked any link between the thimerosal and developmental disorders.
What’s the answer to promoting the use of vaccines? One clue may be to use the channels that have so successfully spread the myth. Jenny McCarthy and Mayim Bialik have been linked to the vaccines-cause-autism argument. Maybe public health advocates need a spokesperson to promote facts that debunk that view.
Another route is social media, which has been used successfully to question the value of vaccines. But this article in FierceVaccines also notes that “pro-vaccine posts are seen as being pushy,” so they need to be handled delicately. The ideas of anti-vaccine advocates have been allowed to spread because vaccinating parents tend to not be radicalized enough to bother with arguing with them. However, this tendency for vaccinating parents to stay out of the discussion is what’s helping vaccination to lose its bandwagon appeal. Anti-vaxers are loud. The other side needs to be loud too, because there’s nothing crunchy about a resurgence of polio.
Vaccines are different from other parenting issues because the choices that parents make also affect everyone else. Vaccines are everyone’s business. It’s a complicated issue and a communications conundrum, with real public health repercussions.