As a pediatrician, I am seriously concerned about the return of measles, a deadly disease that was declared eliminated in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2000. At the time, my medical colleagues and I hailed the end of this dangerous virus that infected more than 4 million people per year, hospitalized 50,000, and killed 500, before the measles vaccine program began in 1963.
Since I began my pediatrics practice in 1982, I have vaccinated thousands of children against measles and other life-threatening illnesses, and I am extremely grateful that we had these powerful yet simple weapons of prevention. Over the years, these vaccines have saved many lives, while causing few to no side effects.
Yet here we are in 2019, with measles outbreaks occurring in six states, a measles state of emergency declared in Rockland County, and the World Health Organization announcing that the virus is once again a global threat.
So what happened? And, more importantly, what can we do to stop it?
The CDC blames measles outbreaks across the United States on two factors: an increase in the number of people who bring measles into the country from abroad and pockets of unvaccinated people living here.
The first factor is due to a rise in worldwide travel and unvaccinated populations in other countries. In fact, the outbreak in New York and New Jersey can be traced to the September 2018 arrivals of travelers from Israel.
The second factor is more difficult to understand and explain. A perfect storm of virulent anti-vaccine sentiment has taken hold in the United States in less than two decades — most commonly among those too young to remember the wrath of measles and other deadly diseases — that can be pinpointed to some of these factors: a fraudulent U.K. research study that linked autism with vaccines, the rise of uninformed and potentially dangerous social media chatter, and pockets of people who either don’t believe measles is “as bad as we are told” or who desire natural, so-called alternative parenting styles.
Statistics have shown that objections to vaccines are not necessarily religious or medical, as many parents claim in trying to obtain exemptions from mandatory school vaccinations. Refusing vaccines is not a doctrine of the Jewish Orthodox, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, or any other religious community.
Instead, failure to vaccinate often is due to unfounded fears among people of all religions, cultures, ethnicities, and financial means. To them, fear of the unknown outweighs fear of a disease that they have never seen in their lifetime. But unvaccinated children and adults pose very real dangers to infants too young to be vaccinated, to people with compromised immune systems (such as those undergoing cancer treatment), and to pregnant women whose unborn babies can be infected.
In my pediatrics practice, I do not refuse to treat unvaccinated children, but I certainly can understand why other healthcare practitioners do. I have found that although there are some parents who are never going to change their minds, there are more who can be persuaded to vaccinate their children once I answer their questions candidly and debunk common myths using the following concrete information:
• Vaccines are safe and do not contain toxins. Many scientific studies attest to their safety, including one major 10-year Danish study of 1 million people that was published in the March 5, 2019, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine that proved the MMR vaccine has no links to autism. Other large studies have shown that the DPT vaccine against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus does not cause brain damage. Vaccines do not contain any toxic ingredients, including mercury.
• Your unvaccinated child may not be protected by herd immunity. Protection against an infectious disease will occur only if at least 93 percent of a child’s community is vaccinated.
• “Natural” alternative healthcare often is not safe. It is not better for a child to contract a disease and/or to build resistance naturally. There is no scientific evidence for this, and by not vaccinating your child you are only putting your children and everyone else at risk.
• Measles, which is a virus, cannot be cured by antibiotics, which treat bacterial infections, despite the dangerous misinformation that some Texas legislators are spreading in trying to introduce legislation that backs anti-vaxxers’ ability to claim “philosophical” exemptions.
With the current measles outbreaks in New York and New Jersey, I want to stress the importance of all eligible patients receiving the measles vaccine, which is 97 percent effective. Measles is so contagious that 90 percent of all unvaccinated children and adults who come in contact with an infected person will contract the virus. It can be spread by direct contact or through the air. It can live for up to two hours in airspace or on surfaces touched by an infected person. One in four people who contracts the virus will need treatment in a hospital. And for some people, measles can be deadly.
Let’s also not forget the other life-saving vaccines that protect us against such potentially deadly diseases as polio, hepatitis B, pneumococcal pneumonia, the flu, Haemophilus influenza type B, and HPV, which can cause cervical and throat cancers.
I urge all parents who are concerned about vaccinating their children to talk to their healthcare providers. If you are uninsured or underinsured or are having trouble affording vaccines, check with your local township or department of health. Many offer free or low-cost vaccines. In 2019, there is no reason that your child should not be protected when we have at our fingertips safe and effective vaccines to prevent deadly diseases.
Harry Banschick, M.D., FAAP, is chairman of pediatrics at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.