Blumenfeld: The anti-immunization campaign poses deadly threat
It's hard not to be thinking about Ebola virus these days. Since the 1970s, sporadic outbreaks have sprung up in various African countries. The virus likely makes the jump to humans from infected animals, but the "natural reservoir" is not known for sure, and outbreaks cannot be predicted. This latest epidemic is by far the worst, and has given the United States its first scary taste of Ebola.
We have already learned important lessons about our preparedness for future outbreaks that reach our shores. But does the Ebola scare offer broader lessons that we can apply right here and now in Fairfield? I think so. Let's do a "thought experiment" with Fairfield as our self-contained laboratory.
We'll imagine that a new virus just like Ebola springs up in Fairfield -- yes, we're just pretending, but new viruses can and do appear everywhere. We'll call our make-believe virus the "Mill River virus," just as Ebola virus was named after a nearby Congolese river. Like Ebola, the Mill River virus lurks somewhere in our local wildlife, and comes out of hiding to attack humans at random times. Like Ebola, there is no treatment, and it kills the majority of the people it infects.
Imagine as well that Fairfield quickly develops effective public health measures to pounce on future Mill River virus outbreaks. Nevertheless, each occurrence results in a number of illnesses and heartbreaking deaths. Parents in Fairfield understandably live in fear of the Mill River virus, which is particularly merciless to children.
Now, let's suppose that a Mill River virus vaccine is invented, tested and released. Assume that, like other vaccines, it's highly effective in children, and serious side effects occur only very rarely. Assume also that all parents are fully informed and understand the risks and benefits of Mill River virus vaccine as stated above.
We're ready for our experiment: Given the deadly presence of Mill River virus in our midst, what percentage of Fairfield parents will have their children receive this vaccine?
We'd likely all agree on an outcome of 100 percent. It's hard to imagine any parent knowingly rejecting a safe and effective vaccine that would protect their children from such a clear and present danger. After all, as in our story, these parents would have personally witnessed the deadly effects of Mill River virus.
But hidden within this make-believe scenario is a troubling reality. It's not make-believe that in our town, there are parents who choose not to have their children receive routine childhood immunizations. In fact, there are up to 20 intentionally unimmunized children in each Fairfield school.
What if we redesigned our experiment to assess the vaccine decisions made by these parents? Would they make an exception for a Mill River virus vaccine, as opposed to, say, vaccines for measles or whooping cough? My strong suspicion is that yes, they would quickly overcome their objections to immunizations and line up for the vaccine along with everyone else.
This likely outcome exposes a serious flaw in the way these parents view routine childhood immunizations. The fact is that all vaccine-preventable diseases kill and maim, and are a much, much greater threat to their children than an Ebola-like virus will likely ever be, despite all the attention it gets on cable news.
Measles, for example, takes the lives of well over 100,000 children every year in the world, and whooping cough claims about 200,000. Almost all of these children are unimmunized because they have no access to vaccine. The developed countries, like ours, are virtually excluded from these grim global statistics because we can afford, and have implemented, universal immunization programs. These programs are one of the crowning achievements in the history of medicine.
Unfortunately, immunization programs have become victims of their own success. Today's parents, and even grandparents, have no direct experience of the pre-vaccine era and the toll these diseases took. We don't fear these diseases because mass childhood immunizations so effectively prevent them. As a result, a significant minority of parents feel they can intentionally leave their children unimmunized, and do so under the cover of permissive state laws. And sadly, we are seeing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases all over the country.
To Fairfield parents of unimmunized children, I will speak plainly: Fortunately, you don't have to make a decision about a make-believe killer virus, but measles, polio and whooping cough are not imaginary diseases. I know you love your kids, but I ask you to love them a little more. I am unsympathetic to any religious teaching that denies vaccine protection to children who cannot speak for themselves, and I am especially disappointed in parents who fraudulently exploit the "religious exemption" provision in Connecticut's immunization law because they have fallen prey to the discredited notions and phony conspiracy theories of nitwit celebrities and crackpots.
Your unimmunized children are getting a free ride for the moment, enjoying the protection of the immunized children around them. But your children will be infected if and when they are exposed to other unimmunized children who contract one of these diseases, and most unfairly, your child will in turn endanger other children too young to be immunized or not immunized for medical reasons.
This is not a make-believe risk; such situations have been documented in many parts of the U.S. Choosing to leave your children unimmunized is dangerous and without rational justification. On behalf of your children and the children of your neighbors, it's time to re-examine your position.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.