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The Great Vaccination Debate: Unfounded Concerns Put Communities At Risk

Photo courtesy of the European Commission DG Echo via Flickr

As long as there have been vaccines, there has been a fearful opposition to them for a variety of reasons.

As measles outbreaks plague affluent and tourist-heavy areas like Disney Land and Beverly Hills due to low vaccination rates, many people are both angry and confused as to how this came about.

Data suggests that in recent years, lower vaccination rates in America have been associated with educated, upper-class parents — an unusual twist, as in the past the trend was more common among uneducated, lower-class populations.

Why the distrust, though, and why the demographic shift? Here’s a look at the concern some people cling to regarding vaccinations, and why they this mindset can be dangerous.

Understand the concerns

All parents want their kids to be healthy, but some are wary of the possibility that vaccines could make their children sick or have unwanted side effects.

A popular worry that is certain vaccinations trigger autism. Initial reports of this correlation caused a panic before they were determined to be fraudulent, and the medical license of the author Andrew Wakefield revoked. Still, many stick to the assumption, which has become a piece of misinformation latched onto by some fringe doctors and anti-vaccine advocates.

Others fear that the immunization, which is in itself a small part of the disease, will have unwanted side effects on their children. Though free vaccines and better education have helped poorer communities, some better-off parents reject vaccines as a medical necessity.

But it’s not just medical opposition: On Immunity author Eula Bliss tells NPR that often times, it’s a social one. General mistrust of capitalism, the pharmaceutical industry, medical community, and government have people believing vaccinations are part of corrupt medical agendas pushed by systems that value profit over health.

For some modern parents from a generation that didn’t witness first-hand the horrors of preventable illnesses like whooping cough, measles, and mumps, vaccinations are seen as a leap of faith rather than an obvious method of prevention.

Understand the science

Close to all of the claims made by those opposed to vaccines have been disputed by modern research and science. The conclusion of extensive studies (pdf) compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics found no evidence of links between vaccinations and autism, seizures, developmental disorders, or other adverse effects.

Unvaccinated children are also more likely to get sick: they are 23 times more likely to contract whooping cough, for example. But it’s not just them at risk, because the higher the rate of unvaccinated children is, the higher the risk of outbreak is among all.

Why? A critical portion of a community must be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks, according to the theory of herd immunity. When the threshold percentage is not reached, everyone is at risk, starting with the most vulnerable — newborn babies, elderly, sick people with weak immune systems, and unvaccinated children.

Understand the consequences

Even though the rates of vaccination nationwide remain at about 90 percent, those communities with lowest vaccination rates remain at risk of the worst outbreaks.

Several California neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica in particular have less than ideal vaccinations rates. Some schools there have 60-70 percent of kids excused from vaccination, on par with rates in countries like South Sudan and Chad. In these cases, parents cite “personal beliefs” for non-medical vaccine exemptions.

Predictably, this type of fear has in recent years been correlated with a resurgence of whooping cough and the largest outbreak of measles in decades.

Anti-vaxxers, regardless of their intentions, are not easily swayed — even by public health communications, one study shows. The fact that the trend is rampant among the educated and otherwise health-conscious means it may take better immunization policy to enforce what, years ago, was simply common sense.

[This article was first published on 10/2/2014.]

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Jennifer Markert