[Author’s note: I haven’t ever lived in Europe at this time of year, but having lived there during other seasons, I’m drawn to the European tradition of taking a vacation during August. After today’s post, I’ll line up some of the most popular posts from the archives, and adjust the frequency somewhat. If you want to nominate a favorite from the past, let me know!]
When it comes to convincing people regarding controversial topics, I’m told that quoting statistics doesn’t get you very far, but stories can make a situation more real.
I’ve been thinking about vaccinations lately, and I could share some stories, like the dad whose young daughter had just finished chemotherapy, and was excited to go on a trip with the family, but then had to go into isolation because she’d been exposed to measles by an unvaccinated child.
Or we could look at stories of women in developing countries who’ve seen measles deaths, and so are willing to walk 10 kilometers in extremely hot weather carrying their children, and then to stand in line and get vaccinations for them. There are stories about kids who miss a year of school while enduring their cancer treatments, only to be unable to return to school because unvaccinated kids there make it unsafe for them to attend. But those aren’t my stories to tell.
My story is not heartbreaking, just disheartening. My daughter and her husband are having their first baby soon, and they would very much like to come as a family from Germany in a few months to see the baby’s 94-year-old great-grandmother who is in poor health, but they don’t dare.
There are many cases of measles in the area where Great-Grandmother lives, and the measles virus is transmitted easily in busy places like airports. For one thing, a person is contagious up to four days before symptoms appear; for another, the virus can linger for a couple of hours after the infected person leaves a room. Those factors combine to create a lot of time for the spread of infection, even absent deliberately irresponsible behavior by someone sick with measles.
According to the World Health Organization, growing resistance to vaccines is one of the top 10 health threats in the world for 2019.
They also emphasize that vaccines are extremely cost effective, and prevent between 2 million and 3 million deaths a year. What’s more, an additional 1.5 million deaths could be prevented if vaccination rates increased around the world. I realize I’ve detoured into facts, numbers and statistics. But that’s a lot of people having been saved, and a lot of people dying needlessly.
Do you know what government body we’d be looking to if there were a massive pandemic or other severe health crisis facing the nation? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We’re not in that dire situation right now, but the CDC did put out a press release on May 30 with a few more facts and figures for us: 971 cases of measles to that point in 2019, far surpassing in 5 months the total number of cases in any entire year since 1994. The update issued on June 27 reports 1095 cases, spread over 28 states.
The press release goes on:
“Measles is preventable and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated. Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism. The greater danger is the disease the vaccination prevents,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, M.D. “Your decision to vaccinate will protect your family’s health and your community’s well-being. CDC will continue working with public health responders across our nation to bring this outbreak to an end.
“Outbreaks in New York City and Rockland County, New York have continued for nearly 8 months. If these outbreaks continue through summer and fall, the United States may lose its measles elimination status. That loss would be a huge blow for the nation and erase the hard work done by all levels of public health. The measles elimination goal, first announced in 1966 and accomplished in 2000, was a monumental task. Before widespread use of the measles vaccine, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States, along with an estimated 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations.”
Here are the states that had reported measles cases as of the end of June:
I don’t say that every vaccine is equally effective, or that no one has ever had a serious adverse reaction to a vaccine. But the CDC emphasizes that the measles vaccine is extremely effective and extremely safe. It would be great if we could collectively walk ourselves back from this ledge we’ve been approaching, get kids their shots, and then, once the biggest danger has passed, talk more about all of the concerns people have.
If you’re someone who has read or heard alarming material against vaccinations, I’m very interested to hear your story, and in particular, the points surrounding the issue that you think are most central to the choice you’ve made. I definitely want to understand better.
If you’re someone who has a friend or family member who has decided against vaccinations, and you’re not sure how to respond, I have a couple of resources to share.
Read through the comic at the end of the post (it covers a lot of ground) or find it at this link,* send it to friends, read this editorial, and get some tips from this Atlantic article on how to talk to a relative who’s against vaccination. You can also check out this TED blog post and accompanying talk (it’s by an Argentinian pediatrician, but there are subtitles, mostly correct). And let me know what you think! Meanwhile, we’ll hope for amazing progress that will allow my elderly mother-in-law to meet her great grandchild.
Here’s an explainer by Maki Naro* that tackles several of the issues at the center of the vaccination debate:
*I found it originally at medium.com. You can find more of Maki Naro’s work here.
[Images: Chiquito, health.nsw.gov.au, geekdad.com, Maki Naro]