In the 1930s, outbreaks swept through every corner of Baltimore. Tens of thousands of children grew sick with fever and a tale-tell rash. Many recovered without incident, but hundreds were killed, and many more were permanently injured with brain damage and hearing and vision loss. The illness came and went, seemingly at random. Families lived with uncertainty and fear, not knowing when illness and tragedy would strike.
One day, a scientist recognized a pattern. He found that the outbreaks occurred at times when most children in Baltimore had not experienced measles and were therefore susceptible to the infection. He correctly reasoned that when enough children were immune to measles by virtue of having survived a past infection, the virus could not easily spread.
This pattern turned out to be the key to the effectiveness of vaccination, one of the safest and most successful medical advances in history. By increasing the number of children who are immune, vaccines prevent outbreaks of lethal disease.
Thanks to the invention of an effective vaccine against measles in the 1960s, we are fortunate to live in an era where many have never seen the devastation of this illness. For the last 10 years, we have had zero cases of measles in Baltimore. That means zero deaths, zero injuries and zero hurt children from the disease.
We have come so far — only to see measles return and threaten to take hold. Despite consensus among doctors and scientists that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks, there have been increasing numbers of parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children. In 2014, there were 644 cases of measles across 27 states.
The recent outbreak that began at Disneyland is spreading through our nation. The decisions of a few are now impacting the rest of the community. Children who are not able to be vaccinated, such as those under one year of age and those with weakened immune systems, are at particular risk of illness and complications. Around the country, our children are falling ill with the same disease that ravaged Baltimore in the 1930s.
We have come too far to let a preventable disease like measles come roaring back. As individual doctors, we have been advising our patients to make sure our children are vaccinated. Now, our region's doctors are coming together to make a joint statement. The Baltimore Statement on Childhood Vaccinations is our united stand.
Signatories include pediatric chiefs and chairs from the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical Center, St. Joseph Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, Sinai Hospital, Harbor Hospital, St Agnes Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and Medstar Franklin Square. Joining them are the health departments of Baltimore City and County, the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other leading pediatricians in practice and policy.
Ours is an unequivocal message: Vaccines are safe and effective, and they save lives every day. When we as individual doctors speak with patients about vaccines, it's about our one-to-one relationship and improving the individual's health. When we as the region's doctors speak to the public about vaccines, it's about more than individual health. It's about the health of our community. It's about our mutual obligation to one other. It's about the value of vaccines to safeguard the future of Baltimore.
On behalf of the signatories of the Baltimore Statement on Childhood Vaccination, we thank Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for bringing together our region's pediatricians and public health leaders to keep our community well. We in Baltimore cannot let our guard down on public health. We educate to improve health; we tackle myths and misinformation; we lead with science and evidence.
We urge health leaders in every city across the U.S. to join Baltimore and prevent measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases from rising again.
Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner; she can be reached @DrLeanaWen and firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Steven Czinn is the chairman of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; Dr. George Dover is the director of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.