I grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a beloved pediatrician. My dad firmly believed in the importance of vaccinations, and had no compunction about “firing” families in his practice that refused to vaccinate their children.
Unfortunately, there is no such mechanism to “fire” people running for public office who equivocate on well-worn myths about vaccines. Green Party nominee Jill Stein told the Washington Post in late July that there were real questions about the health effects of vaccines that need to be addressed “and I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.” But, last week Stein visited the paper again to re-state that “what I have raised questions about is just influence peddling in the FDA.” Republican nominee Donald Trump has been making the false claim for years that vaccines have in “many” cases caused autism, including during one of the fall primary debates, and has also advocated for changes in the recommended vaccine schedule. Whether the intent is to appease the anti-vax fringe or to ride the cultural wave of feelings superseding facts, the potential impact of their fudging is substantial.
Take measles as an example. Last year, an outbreak of measles among visitors to Disneyland in California affected 189 people from 24 states and the District of Columbia. It likely started from a traveler who became infected overseas with measles, where the disease is fairly common, then visited the amusement park while infectious. The majority of people who got measles were found to have been unvaccinated. (California has since passed one of the nation’s toughest vaccine mandates.)
The outbreak wasn’t worse because so many Americans have been vaccinated against measles. When we let ourselves become vulnerable by not vaccinating, a case that could touch off an outbreak of a disease that is currently under control is just a plane ride away.
Vaccines work. Look at the history of any vaccine-preventable disease and you will see that the number of cases drop when a vaccine is widely used.
Back in 1921, more than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria. Two years later, a vaccine was developed against it. It is now part of the standard DTaP vaccine that all American children should get. Only one case of diphtheria has been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2004.
An epidemic of rubella (German measles) in 1964-65 infected 12.5 million Americans, killed 2,000 babies, caused 11,000 miscarriages, and left thousands of children blind, deaf, or mentally impaired. In 2012, just nine cases of rubella were reported to the CDC.
While the US has low rates of many vaccine-preventable diseases, this isn’t the case everywhere in the world. Only one disease, smallpox, has been totally erased from the planet.
Polio no longer occurs in the US and is nearly eliminated in Africa, but it is still paralyzing children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than 350,000 cases of measles were reported from around the world in 2011, with outbreaks in the Pacific, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Americans’ high rates of vaccination against these diseases has helped prevent these clusters of cases from becoming epidemics here.
The misinformation that links vaccines and autism continues to percolate at the highest levels of election discourse despite decades of studies that have shown vaccines to be safe and effective. The purported link between vaccines and autism has been debunked. The paper that made this claim was retracted due to fraudulent research and the researcher, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license. Yet the vaccine-autism myth continues to spread.
Getting the recommended doses of vaccines at the CDC’s recommended time is important to protect against infectious diseases that are still threats today and that can be especially serious for infants, very young children, and many older adults. Suggesting otherwise is playing fast and loose with our nation’s public health and the health of its most vulnerable citizens.
Older adults can play an influential role in increasing the immunity of their family members and social circles, particularly those who are vulnerable to infectious disease or who are too young to receive vaccinations themselves, by making sure their own vaccinations are up to date. They can also inject a dose of reality into the myth-driven debates around vaccines and lead their families by example.
As for our candidates for office, one can hope they heed the words of their long-ago predecessor, President John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Susan Peschin is president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. This article represents her personal views, not those of the alliance; her title and affiliation are provided for identification purposes only.