How Can We Vaccinate Against Fear?

My grandmother, who was born in 1929, has exactly one thing to say regarding people who refuse to vaccinate their children. “They never had friends with polio. I did.”

Poliomyelitis was a constant fear for my grandmother growing up, and for the children she gave birth to in the 1950s. According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) report on the Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children, an average of 16,316 Americans died annually from Paralytic Poliomyelitis when the outbreak was at its peak between 1951 and 1954. Keep in mind that figure is only the mortality rate; the rate of diagnoses (and thus the reality of having to live with the effects) was much higher.

Polio is far from the only disease that rampaged early 20th century America. Indeed, the same CDC report shows that between 1922 and 1925, 147,271 people died annually as a result of Pertussis, more commonly known as Whooping Cough, a disease that was related to only 20 deaths in 2012. Between 1958 and 1962, a shocking 503,282 Americans died after contracting measles, compared to zero reported measles-related deaths in 2013.

There are multiple similar reports, including smallpox, diphtheria, mumps and rubella. Each killed more than 50,000 people annually at different points during the early 20th century; all are more than 99 percent eradicated in the United States today. The CDC ties these decreases to one factor above all others: vaccines.

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Vaccines have helped eradicate some of the world’s worst diseases.

Yet today, 1.8 percent of American parents opt out of vaccinating their children. In some areas of the country, that number spikes to as much as 6 percent. According to Dr. Lawrence Madoff, director of Epidemiology and Immunization for the state of Massachusetts, vaccine refusal is especially rising in well-educated and wealthy communities.

So what is causing American parents to ignore the advice of health organizations as trusted as the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), both of whom stronglyrecommend 10 vaccinations between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, and both of whom vouch for the safety of said vaccinations?

Perhaps the most popular misconception among those who do not vaccinate is the incorrect linkage of vaccines and autism. Dr. Andrew Wakefield first introduced this idea in a now-debunked paper in 1998. Though Dr. Wakefield’s study has been not only discredited but also shown to have “[been] dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a callous disregard for the suffering of children involved in his research” by the very medical journal that originally published it, many parents still fear this nonexistent side effect.

But a misplaced fear of autism is not the only concern keeping parents from vaccinating. According to Claire McCarthy, M.D., a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, parents frequently tell her that there is no point in vaccinating because the diseases being prevented are rare anyway. Dr. McCarthy agrees with the CDC that this thinking is “actually a testament to the effectiveness of vaccines. Many illnesses are rare purely because of vaccines.”

Dr. McCarthy also hears about a fear of thimerosal, a preservative that is no longer even used in any vaccines routinely given to children in the United States. Like the autism myth, this outdated fear is sadly still keeping some parents from vaccinating.

Dr. McCarthy recommends parents educate themselves about vaccines the same way they would any medical treatment being recommended for their children. The APA, CDC and WHO all offer an abundance of resources on vaccines and the diseases they prevent. Hopefully, as Americans become more informed about the real risks and rewards of vaccination, we will see more deadly diseases eradicated not only here but worldwide.