Disclosure: This author is the San Antonio Program Director for The Immunization Partnership. As I’ve said before, if every one got vaccinated, I’d be out of a job. And that would be a good thing.
“I’m not anti-vaccine. I want safe vaccines,” said the "Godfather" himself, Robert De Niro, while promoting his latest film.
Of course we all want safe vaccines. Fortunately, we have them. Despite more than 10 years of research confirming no link between vaccines and autism, the myth persists and has had powerful, negative consequences for our kids.
When Texas children entered school in the Fall of 2009, less than 20,000 in the state filed non-medical exemptions for immunizations. In the Fall of 2014, that number had more than doubled. More than 41,000 children who attend Texas schools are not protected against vaccine preventable diseases, said Rekha Lakshamana, director of Advoacy and Policy for The Immunization Partnership, during a conference on vaccines at the University Health System's Robert B Green Campus, which I helped organize.
That means that those children who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons and those very few for whom the vaccine “doesn’t take” are at an increased risk for a potentially deadly infection.
And they’re not the only ones at risk.
School-aged children bring home diseases to their younger siblings who may be infants that are too young to be vaccinated. The alarming increase in pertussis cases across the state exemplify this problem. Sick children visiting their pediatrician bring that disease to other kids in the waiting room. This is exactly what caused one of the increasingly common measles outbreaks in California: an infant in for a well visit contracted measles in their pediatrician’s waiting room from another patient whose family had chosen not to immunize.
Once Andrew Wakefield’s study was resoundingly debunked, the anti-vaccine groups considered a new tactic. “Too many, too soon,” is the catch-phrase of another physician, Dr. Bob Sears. He recommends an alternative schedule, where vaccines are spaced out over a number of years.
When an infant is stressed, he or she produces cortisol. Research has shown that whether one vaccine is given or more, no additional cortisol is secreted. But when an infant is brought back for repeated vaccination, cortisol is expressed each time. The infant undergoes significantly more stress with each visit than if they’d been vaccinated all at once. In the meantime, they aren’t protected.
“Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease for a longer period of time. It does not make vaccinating safer,” said Sandra Hassink, MD, FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The latest anti-immunization crusade is the Green our Vaccines movement. As a society moving towards more organic foods, we worry about chemicals. Mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde sound scary, until we learn the science behind them.
If you eat tuna, you've consumed methylmercury. If you eat a large quantities, it can accumulate in your brain and has significant effects. But ethylmercury, otherwise known as thimerosal, is a preservative used in some vaccines to prevent contamination and is processed by the body quickly.
“It’s like the difference between a shot of alcohol (ethyl) and a shot of antifreeze (methyl). To the human body, ethyl- and methyl- are drastically different,” Lakshmanan said.
Abundant on the planet, aluminum is found everywhere. In their first six months, exclusively breast-fed infants ingest twice as much aluminum than the sum of all recommended vaccines combined. There is 10 times more aluminum in baby formula than in vaccines.
When vaccines are produced, most of the formaldehyde is removed. The trace amounts remaining are quickly broken down by the body. It’s a natural by-product of our metabolism. For more information, click here.
As these misunderstandings perpetuate, more families choose not to vaccinate their kids.
On the upside, students in the the 17 public independent school districts and the Catholic schools in Bexar County tend to be fully vaccinated, with non-medical exemption rates generally less than 1%. However, charter schools and individual private schools have much higher rates, as high as 8.63% in one San Antonio school.
Those percentages may seem small, but the non-vaccinators tend to live in clusters and go to the same schools. For herd immunity to work, we need vaccination rates higher than 95% in most cases. But with these clusters, there are schools with many kids unvaccinated posing a risk to their classmates.
On a more positive note, at a career fair last night for the Northeast Independent School District, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District was on hand to offer vaccines. In addition to childhood vaccines, they immunized teens for Meningitis and HPV and they offered shingles and pneumonia vaccines to the parents and grandparents.
They vaccinated so many, they ran out of vaccine, according to Dr. Anil Mangla, assistant director of Metro Health. The fact that so many were asking for the immunizations is a very good sign. But it also means that far too many have not already been vaccinated.
Public health professionals have been fighting fear and misunderstanding about immunizations since Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine in 1796. Nearly 200 years later in 1980, the World Health Organization declared the eradication of smallpox. The vaccine is no longer needed. Will it take 200 more years for the world to eradicate measles, pertussis, mumps and more?
Top image: Public domain image of the measles vaccine.