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A Scientific Perspective on the Debate Over Childhood Vaccination

by: Astha Jaiswal

 

The start of the New Year has been marked with a countrywide debate over the issue of childhood vaccination. The Disneyland outbreak of measles, followed by the introduction of a bill in the New York State legislature proposing that parents be given rights to reject vaccinations for their children, are twin issues that have together upswelled the anti-immunization dispute. The debate is primarily focused around the following questions: Are vaccines really safe and effective? Are they 100 percent effective in preventing the disease? Is it fair to seek vaccine exemptions for religious reasons? If I choose not to vaccinate my child, how does it affect you? Do vaccines cause Autism?

To counter the first question on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, I came across an enlightening interactive chart that was based on a dataset recently published by the Council On Foreign Relations (Link to the chart). It shows how the ‘Vaccine preventable outbreaks’ have evolved worldwide in the past decade. The chart shows by year, outbreak type, location and number of people affected by outbreaks of Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Polio, and Others. This terrific graphic representation presents a good case against skepticism with regards to safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

As quoted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, “Vaccines are our best defense against infectious diseases, but no vaccine is 100 percent safe or 100 percent effective,” but then, neither is any other medicinal product. Human biology is complex. Differences in individual immune responses account for the few cases where people experience side-effects or when they are not protected despite being vaccinated. Having said that, vaccines are one of the most rigorously tested and monitored medicinal products by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they are only approved when the benefits offered to the individual far outweigh the risk of serious health effects.

The next issue of vaccine exemptions for religious reasons is one that should be dealt with delicacy as the science versus religion debate has been in existence for centuries, and will forever be. Most often, the argument in favor of religion is that ‘the body is a temple not to be defiled’. My only argument in favor of vaccines for this issue would be that most religions also privilege the preservation of life, and it is a proven fact that vaccines have managed to do so. There are many examples of religious groups changing their stance on vaccination after they experienced the dangers of disease outbreak in their unvaccinated faithful. A more factual and contextual analysis of the teachings of the major religions is detailed in an interesting publication by Grabenstein (2013). In the author’s words, it is a respectful consideration of religious beliefs within a clinical setting where he has reviewed what the scriptures of all major religions say about vaccines and immune globulins.

On the subject of refusing vaccinations, many parents have reservations against the use of vaccines and refuse to vaccinate their children. Some worry about possible reactions to vaccines, while others cite personal choice as the reason. Agreed, there are cases where people have faced adverse reactions to certain drugs or vaccines, making them apprehensive about medicine in general. However, when parents exercise their personal choice, they don’t just endanger the life of their child, they put the entire community at risk by preventing herd immunity. Herd immunity is when a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, thereby conferring protection to most members of the community and providing little room for an outbreak. Smallpox were eradicated when a certain percentage of the population was immunized against the disease. For a disease as contagious as measles, the percentage is the highest and needs more cooperation amongst the community.

Finally, I reach the subject of vaccines causing autism. In 1998, a research article by Andrew Wakefield claimed that measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. The article has long been retracted, but not before it planted the seeds of doubt in the minds of some people. The CDC has strongly asserted that there is no evidence to link the two on the basis of a clinical studies and reports. Many researchers have conducted independent studies and no correlation has been found between the two.

As of mid-February, there were 119 measles cases confirmed in California, and 14 in other states. Importantly, it is clear that a majority of the infected people are unvaccinated. Currently, parents of unvaccinated children are facing a backlash from people who fear unvaccinated children could infect their own. There are a myriad of reasons for people to opt out of vaccination, some of which are discussed here. However, one must try to find logic in their reasoning and come to a conclusion based on analysis of all available facts. All facts and figures indicate that vaccines have saved billions of lives since Edward Jenner pioneered the small pox vaccine, and are the most effective means to fight and eradicate infectious diseases. As a science student, I understand the benefits that vaccines offer far outweigh the associate risks and hence, I strongly encourage immunization for all children.

References:

Grabenstein J.D. What the world’s religions teach, applied to vaccines and immune globulins. Vaccine. 12;31(16):2011-23 (2013).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).

www.cdc.gov/

www.fda.gov/

www.nytimes.com/

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