The vexing anti-vaccine crusade

I followed with mild curiosity the “Revolution for Truth” crowd protesting outside the White House last week. One sign read: “OUR BABIES Were Well. THEY HAVE WELL-BABY MERCURY VACCINE. NOW 1 IN 6 KIDS NEUROLOGICALLY DAMAGED.”

The first thing that popped in my head: What’s with the small letters in an all-caps message?

Then I thought: What mercury?

Aside from some flu shots and one preparation of tetanus shot, mercury (thimerosal), a preservative, has been removed from all childhood vaccines for over a decade. And vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and polio do not contain mercury – NEVER DID. The vaccines-cause-autism theory is a dead horse that’s been running wild for 19 years, defying logic, science and common sense.

But measles, the first M of the MMR vaccine, is a mean old weasel. It’s highly contagious, transmits by droplets that stay airborne for hours, and is infectious days before the rash breaks out. Before a global immunization program in 1980, millions of people died from measles each year. Ebola, nasty as it looks and sounds, can’t hold a candle to measles. In the 2013-16 outbreak, Ebola killed 11,310 people before it was contained, one-tenth the deaths measles racked up in 2015 alone – 134,200 according to the World Health Organization.

In 2000, the U.S. was declared measles free; our outbreaks, so far, have come from overseas travelers. One of the largest outbreaks happened in the Amish communities surrounding Holmes County, Ohio. In 2014, two unvaccinated Amish men returned from typhoon relief work in the Philippines, which was in the middle of a measles outbreak. One developed a rash on the second day, but doctors took weeks to recognize what they had in hand. It took four months, 380 cases, and over 12,000 last-minute vaccinations to contain that outbreak.  

This case demonstrated two points: “herd immunity” and the proverb “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Herd immunity is the reason why unvaccinated American children (8 percent) aren’t coming down with measles. They’re protected by a safety bubble made up of properly vaccinated children and adults.

But two bad things can happen.

First, if the “herd” vaccination rate falls below a certain minimum standard, the protective bubble will burst. Second, if that child ever steps outside the bubble …

Andrew Heffron, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health Immunization Clinic supervisor, said the 2015 MMR immunization rate in Ohio was around 88 percent (90 percent and over is needed for adequate herd immunity). In Cuyahoga County, the rate falls in low-income areas.

Last year the kids and I did a short stint of medical work in Uganda. They helped out in a public clinic and met hundreds of villagers. We tried to be careful, brought our own gloves. Still one got sick, twice – with fever, projectile vomiting and fatigue.  

They brought home a profound appreciation for all things Westlake, U.S.A., including living parents, traffic lights, clean air, tap water that one can drink safely, the ingenuity and privilege of flush toilets.

One thing they definitely did not bring home: measles.

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Volume 9, Issue 8, Posted 9:51 AM, 04.18.2017