Edward Jenner introduced a vaccination against smallpox in 1798, and not long afterward, opposition to vaccination arose. In 1809 the first compulsory vaccination laws in the United States were passed in Massachusetts. Today, all 50 states require all children entering public school to be vaccinated for childhood diseases.
Most states grant religious exemptions from vaccination requirements, and all provide for medical exemptions. Opposition to vaccination centers on two issues: individual freedom and the risk that vaccinations for childhood diseases expose children to severe side effects.
The most frequent adverse effect from vaccinations is allergic reactions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that severe problems from the MMR or MMRV vaccines number about four per million, and moderate reactions occur in less than once per 1,250 doses. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that vaccines for childhood diseases are 90 to 99 percent effective, and worldwide, vaccines save 2.5 million children from preventable diseases each year, or about 285 lives per hour. Vaccines save lives.
Some believe that "natural" immunity from having had a case of measles is a better alternative than vaccination. This may be true, assuming that you don't get encephalitis or pneumonia or lose your hearing or are one of those whom the disease kills.
Some wrongly believe that the MMR vaccine causes children to develop autism spectrum disorder, ASD. They cite a 1998 article appearing in The Lancet, a British medical journal, that alleged a link between the two. That study has since been shown to be fraudulent. In 2010 the journal declared the article to be "utterly false." After 22 studies, not a shred of evidence exists to correlate MMR vaccine with ASD. Anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy's son was one of those few children who had seizures after being injected; her son's symptoms may have been misdiagnosed as ASD instead of Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. Or he simply may have developed more slowly than normal. In any case, having a Hollywood celebrity using unfounded, discredited evidence to justify anti-vaccination positions is a dangerous thing. Every parent who fails to immunize his or her child puts all of us at greater risk.
Community immunity, also called herd immunity, is a condition where enough people are vaccinated against a disease to make it unlikely that an unvaccinated person will catch it through contact with someone else exposed to it. About 91 percent of Americans have gotten measles vaccinations, as compared to China and dirt-poor Tanzania, where upward of 99 percent of the country get the shot. It is worth noting that measles was essentially eradicated from the United States in 2000, but the falloff in vaccinations since then have allowed for its reintroduction. Vaccination protects not only the person receiving it, but all of us.
It goes without saying that for any issue of public policy, some politician or another will inflame the debate, and the recent measles outbreak has produced more than its share of rash remarks from a gaggle of politicians who believe that an individual's right to infect others outweighs all other considerations. Kentucky Senator and tea party presidential hopeful Rand Paul believes that vaccinations should be voluntary. Given his medical background, his position is absolutely irresponsible. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared that parents "need to have some measure of choice" on vaccination. Predictably, Christie's spokespeople tried to backpedal toward a saner position.
On the other hand, Dr. Ben Carson issued a statement strongly supporting the need both for vaccinations and for exemptions, in other words, for maintaining the status quo. Democratic non-candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted, "the earth is round, the sky is blue, and vaccines work."
Vaccines work. Smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977. Polio has not been seen in the United States since 1979. Measles could also become a thing of the past, once we get past the crazy idea not to vaccinate our kids.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at email@example.com.