Mainstream Media Covers the Not-So-Mainstream Decision to Skip Vaccines
Over the past few weeks there seems to be a shift in the way that national news organizations have been covering immunization issues. Rather than focusing on the myths that drive parental concerns and the alleged uncertainties of vaccine safety and efficacy, reporters are increasingly focusing on dangerous outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases like measles, mumps, pertussis and meningitis. They’re often interviewing families who have suffered at the hands of vaccine preventable diseases and talking to health care professionals about the dangers of these diseases. And interestingly enough they are clearly attributing these outbreaks to people who are delaying or refusing vaccines for themselves and their children.
ABC recently covered this concern in a segment entitled Opting Out on Vaccines? in which Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser emphasized the value of school vaccine requirements in helping to protect our public health. The segment highlighted the current measles outbreaks in CA and explained that almost 16,000 CA kindergarteners started school last year without the required measles vaccine. With CA measles vaccine exemptions up 15% from the previous year, and double the amount from just six years ago, the concern is that pockets of unvaccinated students are creating a dangerous risk to our students and our communities.
Just last week the USA Today printed a front page article and corresponding video that claimed diseases are getting a second life due to those who refuse to be immunized. The article explained that even though there are fewer than 1% of Americans who refuse all vaccines, pockets of unvaccinated students are creating a risk in certain populations.
“… in some states the anti-vaccine movement, aided by religious and philosophical state exemptions, is growing, says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He points to states like Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont — where more than 4.5% of kindergarteners last year were unvaccinated for non-medical reasons — as examples of potential hot spots. Such states’ rates are four times the national average and illustrate a trend among select groups.”
Unvaccinated populations can be the source of outbreaks.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s Director of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases explained that during a 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego, CDC officials were shocked to find school districts where one in five children were not vaccinated against the disease. And the article goes on to say that California had the largest number of unprotected kindergarteners last year (14,921)- which refused to be vaccinated due to philosophical reasons. This year, 49 cases of measles had been reported by March, compared to only four cases the state had reported by the same time last year.
While some parents elect not to vaccinate their children, other parents are never given the chance.
For example, The USA Today story highlighted Every Child By Two parent advocates Kathryn Riffenburg and Jon Alcaide who lost their infant son Brady to pertussis and Michaela Mitchell and her ten-year old son Jeremiah who lives with severe physical disabilities following a near death experience with meningitis at age 6. In both these cases, the children were infected with a preventable disease because they were younger than the recommended age for the appropriate vaccine.
Newborns don’t begin their pertussis vaccine series until 2 months of age and it requires five doses to be complete. And despite the fact that Michaela followed all medical recommendations for her son, Jeremiah wasn’t vaccinated against meningitis because the vaccine recommendation is for 11- or 12-year-olds and her son was only six at the time. Unfortunately, both children were exposed because the disease was circulating in their community, something that is more inclined to happen in areas with low vaccination rates.
But how about the parents who knowingly choose not to vaccinate their child?
When Dr. Besser interviewed the parents of twin four-year olds who are only partially vaccinated, they admitted that their choice not to vaccinate for measles was based on their assessment that there is very little risk that their children would contract this disease. Hilary, another parent interviewed in Dr. Besser’s segment, expresses concern over this selfish way of thinking.
“Parents like them are counting on the fact that most kids get the shots, giving protection to the rest. That’s not fair to everybody else. You’re relying on everybody else to do it for you.”
Even medical professionals like Dr. Cohen, who Dr. Besser includes in his segment, are quick to explain why even pediatricians “are drawing a line in the sand”.
“That’s like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know if that’s going to be the 1 in 1,000 child that’s going to die from that illness.”
These news segments, as well as many others we’ve seen these past few weeks, illustrate that the tide of public opinion may be changing. As we see more outbreaks, there will be more attention directed to the risks of disease and the detrimental impact of vaccine refusal on our public health. In a recent Twitter chat about vaccine hesitancy with Dr. Besser, dozens of immunization advocacy organizations shared their concerns about vaccine hesitancy and offered recommendations for reliable resources as well as suggestions on how we can address parental concerns. Take a look at what you may have missed and be sure to share other news articles that may be of interest in the comments below.