Editor’s Note: Nellie Sabin has graced us once again with a compelling and personal account of one of her health and wellness experiences. Sabin works as a freelance writer and editor who has published ten nonfiction books on a variety subjects. Read more of her musings and contact her at nelliesabin.tumblr.com, or just pay her a visit. She’d appreciate that.
In 2008, Dr. Bob Sears – son of the renowned Dr. William Sears, “America’s Pediatrician” – had a young patient who still had not received the usual childhood vaccines by age 7. The child went to Switzerland and contracted the measles. On his return, he gave the disease to 4 other children waiting in the doctor’s office (3 of them less than a year old), his 2 siblings, and 2 of his classmates. His sister gave the disease to two of her classmates, and another sibling also contracted the measles. In all, 839 people were exposed, 48 children were quarantined, several children became ill, and a 10-month-old baby had to be hospitalized.
The 10-month-old spent three days in the hospital with a fever of 106 degrees. He dropped from 18 to 12 pounds in five days and was sick for weeks afterward. The parents, Megan Campbell and her husband, had to take a month off from work to help their baby recover. At times, “I wondered if he was going to be the same boy he was a week before,” Campbell told the interviewer on the radio program This American Life. “I just wondered how this family who had brought this into San Diego… what were they thinking? Did they feel for us at all? Did they feel bad about it?”
No, they did not.
Measles in the US Today
In the old days, there used to be about 500,000 cases of the measles each year in the US. It was a huge health threat. In 1963, the measles vaccine was introduced. By 1996, the number of cases dropped to 508. By 2000, the measles was declared eliminated from the Unites States. This was a huge victory for public health, and it had a tremendous effect on the well-being and survival of young children.
Well, measles is making a comeback. Physicians initially misdiagnosed some patients because they had never seen a case of the disease before. By 2008, there were 140 cases. In 2011, there were 223 cases – a 15 year high (17 different outbreaks). Three-quarters of these cases were transmitted locally, and the remaining cases came from unvaccinated people who traveled outside the country and brought the disease home with them.
Measles is completely preventable in healthy children with 2 doses of a vaccine. Some children are under-vaccinated and still vulnerable if they receive only 1 vaccination. Babies under the age of 12 months are still too young to be inoculated and are at risk of catching the measles. Elderly people are at risk because they are too old to have received the vaccine. Some children have chronic health problems and cannot be vaccinated. Immunocompromised patients of any age who have AIDS or who are on chemotherapy have much to fear from measles. If they contract the disease, the death rate is 30%.
Outbreaks in the US During January and February, 2012
Indiana: Two individuals in Indiana who had the measles went to the Super Bowl – with 200,000 other people – while they were contagious. This caused an additional 14 cases among unvaccinated individuals.
News reports pointed out that fortunately most of the people at the Super Bowl were vaccinated – something called “herd immunity.” The Washington Post said, “If the measles vaccine were not as widely used as it is now, this story…would be front and center on every news outlet in the country.” With the additional people who were exposed at the movies, and church, and school, and the grocery store, and so on, the outbreak could have been like a scene from CONTAGION, with people spreading the virus all over the country.
There are other consequences in addition to illness. Because 2 Indiana students got the measles, 54 unvaccinated but exposed children had to be quarantined and miss school completely. (If both parents work outside the home, this can be a hardship if they have to change their child care arrangements.) After-school activities and practices were cancelled; clinics were set up to offer vaccines to unvaccinated staff members and students; and schools and buses received extra cleaning. The cost of trying to contain a measles outbreak ranges up to $800,000.
A 17th case in Indiana was just reported – an unvaccinated person who traveled outside the country to an area where measles is prevalent, and came back ill. Every patient, staff member, and doctor who was at the same emergency room at the same time as this individual on February 20th was exposed.
Oregon – Currently an 11-year-old is dying from a rare complication of measles. He had the measles as a child and almost died; then, ten years later, he started experiencing neurological symptoms, repeatedly turning the lights on and off and behaving strangely. He was diagnosed with Dawson Disease, which is incurable. So far he has lost his sight and control of most of his body, and his death is inevitable.
Michigan – A 15 month old girl caught the measles while traveling in southeast Asia. She went to her local doctor at January 10 and exposed all the other children in the waiting room.
Delaware – a 6 year old girl was diagnosed with measles on January 13. Her schoolmates, staff, and teachers were all exposed.
Last year measles were reported in Utah, Texas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, where 13 cases were all linked to one unvaccinated patient. These patients ranged in age from 4 months to 51 years old; 8 (over half) were hospitalized. Some babies were too young to receive the vaccine; 6 patients were old enough but simply not vaccinated.
Is Measles One of the Common Childhood Illnesses, Like Chicken Pox?
No. Measles is not a benign disease. Although it usually is associated with a red rash, it is a disease of the respiratory system. A mild case involves a runny nose, red eyes, cough, rash, and fever. Complications can include bronchitis, diarrhea, ear infections, hearing loss, corneal scarring, pneumonia, convulsions, encephalitis, brain damage, and death. The measles can also cause pregnancy complications such as miscarriage. If you aren’t sure whether you are immune or not, have your blood tested, particularly if you are thinking about getting pregnant.
Measles is an airborne illness, meaning you will catch it from someone who is sneezing, coughing, or simply breathing the same air you are in an airplane or classroom. No contact with the sick person is necessary. The disease is highly contagious. If 100 un-vaccinated people sit in a doctor’s waiting room with someone who has the measles, at least 90 will catch it.
Generally the measles vaccine is bundled with 3 others into a MMRV shot that protects against Measles, Mumps, Rubella (German measles), and Varicella (chickenpox). It is usually administered to kids 12-15 months old. A different shot, the DPT combination, confers immunity against 3 other deadly diseases: Diptheria, Pertussis (whooping cough), and Tetanus. Most physicians recommend that babies and young children follow an inoculation schedule that protects them as soon as possible so little babies are not forced to fight off life-threatening diseases.
The Anti-Vaccine Movement
Some people honestly believe it is not their problem if their child is not vaccinated, gets the measles, and gives it to another family’s baby or pregnant mother. An article in the New York Times quoted parent Sybil Carlson of San Diego as saying, “I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good.”
But what is this “sacrifice” she is so worried about? No one is asking her to drop her baby in boiling oil. In fact, she is being asked to protect her child from a virulent illness. Why is the vaccine so feared?
In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, published research in the British medical journal The Lancet that supposedly showed a link between the MMR vaccine and 8 cases of the inexplicable and frightening disorder called autism. Unfortunately, this article should never have been published. It has now become clear that Wakefield manipulated the data. Also, it is believed some of children were already showing early signs of autism. When the scandal came to light, his co-authors retracted their claims, Wakefield’s medical license was revoked, and The Lancet took the extraordinary measure of retracting his article.
Many people do not realize Wakefield’s research was unethically financed as well. He was actually interested in creating a vast money-making scheme. He accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from lawyers who were lining up to sue the manufacturers of vaccines. Even worse, he planned to sell diagnostic tests for vaccine-induced diseases – a business venture he predicted would make over $40 million in 3 years. These hidden conflicts of interest obviously warped his conclusions.
Despite many millions of dollars spent on further testing – money that otherwise could have been spent on new research – Wakefield’s conclusions have never been replicated or verified. He has now been thoroughly discredited within the medical community. Says the New York Times, “Andrew Wakefield has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation.” His peers consider him a “menace to medicine,” and one health advocate says, “I believe this one man has done more to interfere with immunization advancements all across the world than anyone else in recent history.”
Wakefield Starts Over
This should have been the end of the story, but Wakefield moved to Texas and founded Thoughtful House Center for Children, a research and treatment center for autistic children. He was welcomed with open arms. Dr. Wakefield is considered a hero by thousands of parents of autistic children, who revere him for validating their concerns. They view him as “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.”
Unfortunately, Wakefield did not change into a reputable researcher overnight. The General Medical Council found in January 2010 that he had committed ethical violations, such as subjecting developmentally disabled children to unnecessary invasive procedures, mishandling funds, and failing to disclose conflicts of interest, among others. Wakefield resigned from Thoughtful House – but instead of feeling disgraced, he was energized by being censured yet again. Now he has a powerful role as a martyr and an outsider, the worthy David against the Goliath of mainstream medicine.
Wakefield’s fraudulent study pierced the hearts of parents’ fears for their children. Autism is increasing at an alarming rate, and he continues to preach a vaccination connection. He claims the MMR vaccine causes a bowel disorder that causes autism, and the bowel issues can be relieved by diet. Doctors are quite certain that this is not the correct explanation for autism – but they can’t tell parents what is.
Dr. Sears Weighs In – Sure You Wanna Trust This Guy?
While most doctors were earnestly explaining the need for vaccinations to the parents in their practices, Dr. Bob Sears took an alternate route and cashed in on parents’ fears. Less than a week after Wakefield lost his medical license, Dr. Sears posed with him at the largest anti-vaccine conference in the country. He signed up with a speakers’ bureau to give profitable lectures about vaccines. Dr. Sears published The Vaccine Book, which includes chapters that clearly go against current medical advice, like “Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Are Not That Bad,” and “Natural Infection is Better Than Vaccination.” (My personal opinion is that any doctor who argues polio is “not that bad” should have his license revoked.) He reassures parents that travel to Europe is not a health risk, which contradicts the information from the Centers for Disease Control (for example, France is definitely a current measles risk). He suggests an alternate schedule that can be used in which children are vaccinated at older ages, even though this schedule has no medical benefits. Forbes magazine notes, “Sears appears to have simply invented this alternative schedule without bothering to conduct any scientific studies, in part to promote sales of his 2007 book.”
Remarkably, Dr. Sears also writes:
“When dealing with anxious parents, I warn them not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the diseases increase significantly.”
The Celebrity Connection
Enter celebrity and ex-Playboy-bunny Jenny McCarthy, who claims her son Evan developed autism after being given an MMR vaccine. She also claims that he was cured by a treatment called chelation therapy, which removes mercury from the body. Neither claim makes sense, since children are not “cured” of autism, and mercury is not associated with it. Doctors have suggested that most likely little Evan had a disorder called Landau-Kleffner syndrome, which is often misdiagnosed as autism.
Jenny McCarthy wrote a book called Louder than Words: A Mother’s Journey into Healing Autism. She made the rounds of all the radio and TV shows, arguing that a vaccine made her child autistic, but she cured him. She gave millions of parents both false fears and false hopes. She became the poster girl for the current movement against vaccinating children. Suddenly doctors ran into a wall of resistance regarding childhood vaccinations.
Anti-Vaccination Movement Gains Traction – Deadly Traction
Now there are books such as The Vaccine-Free Child, and anti-vaccination websites like VaxTruth.com, that say the conventional medical understanding of childhood illnesses and the need for vaccinations are nothing but myths perpetuated by the medical establishment. They encourage boycotting all vaccines. They fervently believe the discredited information about vaccines and autism. They argue that living in the US with modern medical care makes death from measles unlikely. They sneer at measles statistics and information put out by the Centers for Disease Control, and publicize frightening articles such as, “Parents Believe Flu Vaccine Killed Their 7-Year-Old Daughter.” They tell parents how to get exemptions so their un-vaccinated children can go to school.
Currently 12 states in America have vaccination rates below 90%. The lowest rates are in areas with poor health care – and in affluent enclaves of New York, New Jersey, and other areas with access to the best health care. The politically liberal town of Ashland, Oregon, has a vaccine exemption rate of 30%.
12. Louisiana 89.7
11. Kentucky 89.5
10. New York 89.3
9. Colorado 89.3
8. Louisiana 89.7
7. New Mexico 88.8
6. Alaska 88.4
5. Arizona 87.7
4. Idaho 87.2
3. Nevada 87.0
2. New Jersey 86.1
1. Montana 85.1
What’s A Parent to Do?
Many doctors have noted, dryly, that if parents had any clue what these diseases were really like, they would not play Russian Roulette with their children’s health by avoiding vaccines. Gary L. Freed, director of General Pediatrics at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, told CNN: “I took care of a child who died of measles encephalitis because he was not vaccinated. It was a horrible death that was needless and preventable, and those parents never forgave themselves for not vaccinating their child.”
Vaccinations are scary, no doubt about it. My own child reacted badly to an MMR vaccine and I thought I’d killed her. And, there is no question that parents of autistic children are dealing with difficulties the rest of us cannot begin to understand. They deserve our support and sympathy. At the same time, Just the Vax lists 55 studies that do not support a link between vaccines and autism. Something else is happening, and moving on from this issue might allow us to find out what it is.
Not having your child vaccinated, or delaying vaccinations for your child, is actually a decision to put your child at risk of death by leaving him or her unprotected. In this case, the “greater good” IS your personal good.