Once upon a time, not too very long ago, monsters roamed unchecked across the land, ravaging towns and villages, leaving death and agonizing heartbreak in their wake.
They were pestilence incarnate. Mumps, measles, rubella, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), and varicella (chickenpox)
They attacked without warning and without mercy. Unseen, they stalked their victims with piteous and relentless ferocity. There was no discrimination in their attacks. Rich or poor, farmer or factory worker, master or servant, black, white, brown, red, yellow — all were equally targeted.
What made the monsters especially hideous was that the bulk of their victims were small children. Parents despaired of their child’s health. Every cough or sniffle brought agonizing questions: Is it polio? A low grade fever forced the demons of the imagination to conjure up visions of their loved one suffering from measles, mumps, rubella, or any of the other childhood killers from which humans were not immune and for which we had no protection.
The monsters were eventually cornered and neutralized. And it took legions of dedicated scientists, researchers and volunteers to work the miracle and virtually remove the scourge of childhood disease from much of the planet.
Vaccinations can seem like magic, which is perhaps one reason the anti-vaccination crowd distrusts them so. But the proof of their success is beyond any doubt, as this article in Reason Magazine shows:
Vaccines are among the most effective health care innovations ever devised. A November 2013 New England Journal of Medicine article, drawing on the University of Pittsburgh’s Project Tycho database of infectious disease statistics since 1888, concluded that vaccinations since 1924 have prevented 103 million cases of polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria, and pertussis. They have played a substantial role in greatly reducing death and hospitalization rates, as well as the sheer unpleasantness of being hobbled by disease.
A 2007 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the annual average number of cases and resulting deaths of various diseases before the advent of vaccines to those occurring in 2006. Before an effective diphtheria vaccine was developed in the 1930s, for example, the disease infected about 21,000 people in the United States each year, killing 1,800. By 2006 both numbers were zero. Polio, too, went from deadly (16,000 cases, 1,900 deaths) to non-existent after vaccines were rolled out in the 1950s and 1960s. Chickenpox used to infect 4 million kids a year, hospitalize 11,000, and kill 105; within a decade of a vaccine being rolled out in the mid-1990s, infections had dropped to 600,000, resulting in 1,276 hospitalizations and 19 deaths. Similar dramatic results can be found with whooping cough, measles, rubella, and more.
And deaths don’t tell the whole story. In the case of rubella, which went from infecting 48,000 people and killing 17 per year, to infecting just 17 and killing zero, there were damaging pass-on effects that no longer exist. Some 2,160 infants born to mothers infected by others were afflicted with congenital rubella syndrome-causing deafness, cloudy corneas, damaged hearts, and stunted intellects-as late as 1965. In 2006 that number was one.
It is certainly true that much of the decline in infectious disease mortality has occurred as a result of improved sanitation and water chlorination. A 2004 study by the Harvard University economist David Cutler and the National Bureau of Economic Research economist Grant Miller estimated that the provision of clean water “was responsible for nearly half of the total mortality reduction in major cities, three-quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two-thirds of the child mortality reduction.” Providing clean water and pasteurized milk resulted in a steep decline in deadly waterborne infectious diseases. Improved nutrition also reduced mortality rates, enabling infants, children, and adults to fight off diseases that would have more likely killed their malnourished ancestors. But it is a simple fact that vaccines are the most effective tool yet devised for preventing contagious airborne diseases.
Those born after vaccinations became a routine part of a child’s health may find it difficult to grasp the panic and anxiety that afflicted parents prior to a mass immunization program. The fear was palpable when word of mouth news would reach them of a neighbor child struck down with polio. My mother told stories of her nightmares about her children catching the disease and routinely thanked God for Jonas Salk, who developed the first effective polio vaccine in 1956 (the more effective oral vaccine was created by Albert Sabin in 1962). Perhaps more than anything else, vaccines gave parents a peace of mind that was unheard of prior to the development of immunizations.
Vaccinations virtually wiped out these diseases — until paranoid quack science advocates, who fear science as the ancients feared dragons and magic, began their insidious campaign to convince gullible parents that their children were more at risk from vaccinations than they were from the diseases the vaccines were created to destroy. Of their arguments, all that should be said is that they have been debunked several times over by government and university scientists, while no credible research from the other side has been able to dent their findings. Vaccines are not 100% safe and effective. But a child’s risk of dying from measles or mumps is several times higher than the risk of that child becoming ill or dying as a result of being immunized.
I hasten to add that there is a developing debate over whether all vaccines should be given to all children. This is an entirely separate issue from “opting out” of the vaccination program entirely. But the debate should be informed by science, not the rantings of paranoids who see conspiracy in the work debunking their theories — the hidden hand of Big Pharma and Big Government conspiring to line the pockets of giant corporations while putting their children at unnecessary risk. There are legitimate questions about the efficacy of all mandated vaccines and parents should take care to weigh all considerations — as they should do with all health issues relating to their children — before going ahead.
But I am despairing of those taken in by the anti-vax charlatans. I put them in the same category as 9/11 truthers and other conspiracy nuts — people who substitute facts for fancy, the truth for the comfortable lie. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of parents don’t listen to them and get their children vaccinated anyway. Those vaccinated aren’t 100% protected, as some immune-deficiency diseases make the vaccines ineffective. But given the fact that 99% of those immunized are protected, the small risk of an untoward reaction to the vaccine seems reasonable and acceptable.
To those who don’t immunize their children, I would devoutly wish you never have to see how much your paranoid fantasies have cost your own child.