As National Infant Immunization Week draws to a close, measles cases in the U.S. have hit their highest mark in 25 years.
The resurgence of the highly contagious disease is largely attributed to misinformation that is turning people against vaccines, and experts warn that other communicable diseases could also make a comeback.
Doctors and others say vaccines have been extensively researched and overwhelmingly shown to be safe and highly effective.
The U.S. has low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases but that isn’t true in some parts of the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Measles was declared all but eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Outbreaks of any communicable disease can occur if one or two cases are introduced in communities where most people are not vaccinated.
Because vaccines are not always completely effective, some vaccinated people can also become infected.
“If vaccination rates dropped to low levels nationally, diseases could become as common as they were before vaccines,” according to the CDC.
Local pediatrician Dr. Jeffrey Tamburin said vaccines have pushed some diseases out of sight and out of mind.
“People think that they’re not real risks,” he said. “The reality is if we stop vaccinating, they’ll come back quickly.”
The resurgence of measles is an example.
The World Health Organization reported in mid-April that globally there was four times as many measles case so far this year as there were at that point in 2018.
Twenty states reported 555 measles cases, with nearly two-thirds in New York. Most of those cases have been unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities.
The WHO listed vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – among the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.
Tamburin says vaccines give the body the ability to protect itself.
“Basically, you’re letting the body’s own wonderful immune system do its job,” he said. “You’re just, in most cases, giving a little piece of the germ – not a live germ but just a little piece of it – that the body can then recognize and develop antibodies to.”
Tamburin said vaccines have been probably the greatest lifesaver out of any medical advance that has come about in the last century.
“The amount of morbidity and mortality that’s been prevented by the vaccines is incredible,” he said.
Sometimes the biggest dangers from a disease come not from the symptoms but from the complications. The symptoms of measles are rash, fever, cough, runny nose and pink eye, but the complications can include encephalitis (brain swelling) and pneumonia (infection in the lungs), sometimes resulting in death.
Recommended immunizations for children start early. The first vaccination, for Hepatitis B, is usually given before a newborn leaves the hospital.
“The routine schedule is two months, four months, six months, nine months, 12 months, 15 months, 18 months and then preschool,” Tamburin said.
Newborns are not able to get the flu vaccine, but during flu season he tells families with a newborn to get everybody else in the house vaccinated.
“That way even though the baby can’t get (the vaccine), you protect everybody around them,” he said.
The recent outbreak of measles in Madagascar isn’t a case of people refusing the vaccine but the nation not having the resources to get the vaccine to them.
“Measles is so contagious if you don’t have a vaccine rate of about 90 or 95 percent, then you lose effectiveness,” Tamburin said. “That’s a big thing that people I don’t think quite understand is herd immunity is so very important.”
A parent not vaccinating a child can affect others.
“Vaccines are effective, but they’re more effective the more people that get it because it keeps the whole disease out of the population,” Tamburin said. “Giving the vaccine to one person certainly helps that person, but nothing gives you 100 percent protection, so then as more people around you get vaccinated it decreases the chance of the disease.”
Even though studies have shown no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism, some anti-vaccine groups cite a case series published by Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues in 1998 which suggested a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The study has since been debunked.
Tamburin said negative reactions to vaccines are rare.
“Local soreness and low-grade fever is pretty much what you’re going to see in a majority of the cases,” he said.
Tamburin said it’s frustrating that misinformation about vaccines can put so many children at risk.
“People can get so much misinformation and it affects them,” he said. “It scares people and that’s what leads to a lot of the problem.”
In 1900, 30 percent of all deaths in the United States occurred in children less than 5 years of age, according to statistics on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
The decrease is attributed to advances in public health, living standards, medical science and technology, and clinical practice. “Children who previously would have perished from an array of childhood infections today live healthy and long lives thanks to sanitation improvements, vaccines, and antibiotics,” according to the website.
Average life expectancy at birth in the United States rose from less than 50 years in 1900 to more than 76 years in 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Tamburin thinks a majority of patients will do what the health professional recommends.
“Some people come in with questions and they want our opinions and will make their decision based on things we say,” he said. “And then you’ll have a small group with their minds made up and there’s absolutely nothing we can do or say that will change it because, again, they’ve got information from the internet.”
Lately the questions have transitioned from autism to a feeling that all these vaccines overwhelm the immune system. Tamburin said that’s a lot of the pseudoscience you get online.
“Again, there’s zero science behind that,” he said. “The body’s immune system can process immeasurable amounts of germs in a day and introducing a few particles for it to react against is well within the scope of what your immune system can handle.”
Legitimate medical reasons for not getting vaccinated – such as the child having a problem with its immune system or going through chemotherapy or other treatment – are rare, Tamburin said.