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Vaccination myths endanger everyone [Commentary]

This month more than 50 million American children will report to our public and elementary school systems to begin another school year, bringing with them not only new books, laptops, smartphones and iPads, but also their parents' hopes and dreams for a bright and healthy future.

Unfortunately — and often all too tragically— a growing percentage of students enter or return to school without the most important back to school requirement: vaccinations. These students are part of a new generation vulnerable to childhood diseases that have long since been under control but are now making a comeback due to parental misinformation and bad science.

For years, the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine has been a mainstay requirement for children entering day care, kindergarten and elementary school; however, the number of parents who are forgoing vaccinations based on personal beliefs has increased in recent years due to a misreported link to autism.

Sadly, public skepticism of science and mainstream immunization practices has never been higher, fueling an environment that allows rumors to be considered facts and long-discredited articles to become proven science. After a decade of public health campaigns and studies published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine refuting any link between the MMR vaccine and autism, it is time to put these dangerous and scientifically disproven myths to rest.

According to recent findings from PhRMA's Second Annual National Health Survey, 1 in 4 Americans believe vaccines can cause autism in young children, including 30 percent of adults who are responsible for raising a child. This troubling belief was also more prevalent among younger Americans of child-bearing age 18-34 (30 percent) and those without a college degree (30 percent).

Concern about the link between the MMR vaccine and autism began in 1998, after the British medical journal "The Lancet" published Andrew Wakefield's faulty study connecting the vaccine to autism. In 2010, the publication retracted Mr. Wakefield's report, noting that elements of the manuscript had been falsified. But despite the claim being widely discredited by the scientific community, the myth appears to live on and has done long-lasting damage to public health.

So far this year, measles has infected 593 people in 21 states. And just this month, we witnessed a measles outbreak in Ohio that infected 377 Ohioans — the largest outbreak of the disease in the United States in two decades. Additionally, approximately 42,000 adults and 300 children die in the U.S. each year from vaccine preventable diseases.

Enough is enough.

No other public health intervention except clean drinking water has done more to reduce the global burden of disease than vaccination. Ten infectious diseases have been at least 90 percent eradicated in the United States thanks to vaccines, and today vaccines prevent hepatitis A and B, pneumonia and some cancers, and they have contributed to the global lifespan increase of six years between 1990 and 2012.

Furthermore, at a time when our health care system is consistently looking for cost savings, vaccines not only save lives, they save money. Vaccinating babies born each year, for example, saves the health care system $43 billion in direct and indirect costs.

As the new school year begins, we should all be reminded to get the facts and do our homework on vaccines. Parents must do their research and understand that if they choose to delay vaccines for a child, or reject vaccines entirely, it not only puts their own child at risk, it puts everyone at risk.

Dr. William Chin leads the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's (PhRMA) Scientific & Regulatory Affairs department. His email is Chin@phrma.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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