The anti-vaccination movement has gained popularity in recent years with Jenny McCarthy in the US (who frequently appears on Oprah) and the Australian Vaccination Network here in Australia. They encourage parents not to vaccinate their children through misinformation and fear.
For instance, this is what the AVN have to say about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination
Unlike vaccination (which offers only temporary immunity), the natural occurrence of each of these diseases (all non-threatening illnesses in early childhood) generally results in lifelong immunity.
According to the AVN measles, mumps and rubella are all non-threatening illnesses – illnesses that can not harm your child. Now let’s actually look at the scientific data on the effects of measles, mumps and rubella in children and adults.
Firstly measles. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says
Measles is a leading cause of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available to prevent the disease.
In 2007, there were 197 000 measles deaths globally – nearly 540 deaths every day or 22 deaths every hour.
22 kids die every hour from measles. Does that sound like a non-threatening illness to you? Complications from measles can also cause blindness, encephalitis (an infection that causes brain swelling), severe diarrhoea and related dehydration, ear infections, or severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
With mumps, death is extremely rare but some serious complications can occur such as deafness, sterility (both male and female), meningitis and pancreatitis.
With rubella, the people most at risk are pregnant women and their unborn baby. There is a 90% chance of a pregnant woman passing rubella onto their unborn baby. Rubella causes deafness in the unborn child and can also cause defects in the eyes, heart, and brain.
So how does that compare to the complications that the MMR vaccination can cause?
Medinfo has a fantastic table which I have replicated here.
|Complications||Risk after natural disease||Risk after first dose of MMR|
|Fits (convulsions)||1 in 200||1 in 1000|
|Meningitis / encephalitis||1 in 200 to 1 in 5000||1 in 1000000|
|Conditions affecting the clotting of the blood||1 in 3000||1 in 24000|
|Severe allergic response (anaphylaxis)||-||1 in 100000|
|Deaths||1 in 8000 to 1 in 10000 (depends on age)||0|
To me, there is no contest, the vaccine is far safer than the diseases it is preventing.
So far, we have just investigated the risks to the child who is getting the vaccination, but what about the risks to the wider community? This is a topic that is largely ignored by the anti-vaccination movement.
There is a heart-breaking article in the Slate by Stephanie Tatel, the mother of a 2 1/2 year old boy who has leukemia. Because of the chemotherapy her son is receiving, he can not be vaccinated nor does his body have the number of white blood cells to be able fight diseases like measles, whopping cough and chicken pox. If he contracts any of these diseases his chance of surviving them is very low. Therefore, he can not go to child care because of unvaccinated children also at the centre. When he becomes school age, his parents have to make the decision to risk sending him to school where unvaccinated children will be in attendance. Even visiting a doctor’s surgery could be deadly for this kid if another child sitting in the waiting room has chicken pox or whopping cough.
Then there are the sad cases of children too young to receive vaccinations dying from whopping cough and measles because of unvaccinated kids and adults. Kids too young to be vaccinated rely on the herd immunity of their community to keep them safe from these deadly diseases, but as more and more people go unvaccinated, the herd immunity drops to a level where it no longer offers any protection. There was a horrible case in March this year of a 4 week old infant dying of whooping cough because of the herd immunity in NSW had dropped so low that there is now an epidemic. This little girl should not have died from a disease that can be so easily prevented through vaccinations.
Parents should investigate vaccinations before getting their child vaccinated, but instead of only getting one side of the story from the anti-vax groups about the small risk of harm a vaccine might do a child, they should also be told about the much greater risk that the diseases pose to both the child and to the wider community.