NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Anti-Vaccination Epidemic

September 26, 2014

Almost 8,000 cases of pertussis, better known as whooping cough, have been reported to California's Public Health Department so far this year. Why is this preventable respiratory infection making a comeback? In no small part thanks to low vaccination rates, says Dr. Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

In the 1990s, when new vaccines were introduced, the news media were obsessed with the notion that vaccines might be doing more harm than good. The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism, we were told. Thimerosal, an ethyl-mercury containing preservative in some vaccines, might cause developmental delays.

Then those stories disappeared. One reason was that study after study showed that these concerns were ill-founded. Another was that the famous 1998 report claiming to show a link between vaccinations and autism was retracted by The Lancet, the medical journal that had published it.   But the damage was done. Countless parents became afraid of vaccines. As a consequence, many parents now choose to delay, withhold, separate or space out vaccines. Some don't vaccinate their children at all

  • A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that between 1991 and 2004, the percentage of children whose parents had chosen to opt out of vaccines increased by 6% a year, resulting in a more than twofold increase.
  • Between 2009 and 2010 more than 3,500 cases of mumps were reported in New York City and surrounding area.
  • In 2010 California experienced an outbreak of whooping cough larger than any outbreak there since 1947. Ten children died.
  • In the first half of 2012, Washington suffered 2,520 cases of whooping cough, a 1,300% increase from the previous year and the largest outbreak in the state since 1942.
  • As of Aug. 29, about 600 cases of measles have occurred in the U.S. in 2014: the largest outbreak in 20 years -- in a country that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles-free in 2000.

Who is choosing not to vaccinate? The answer is surprising. The area with the most cases of whooping cough in California is Los Angeles County, and no group within that county has lower immunization rates than residents living between Malibu and Marina Del Ray, home to some of the wealthiest and most exclusive suburbs in the country. At the Kabbalah Children's Academy in Beverly Hills, 57% of children are unvaccinated. At the Waldorf Early Childhood Center in Santa Monica, it's 68%, according to the Hollywood Reporter's analysis of public-health data.

Parents might consider what has happened in other countries when large numbers of parents chose not to vaccinate their children. Japan, for example, which had virtually eliminated whooping cough by 1974, suffered an anti-vaccine activist movement that caused vaccine rates to fall to 10% in 1976 from 80% in 1974. In 1979, more than 13,000 cases of whooping cough and 41 deaths occurred as a result.

Source:  Paul A. Offit, "The Anti-Vaccine Epidemic," Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2014.

 

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