There’s a massive outbreak of measles underway in China. It’s big, really big:
“In the first five months of 2014, China has reported nearly 36,000 cases of measles, well over the 27,646 cases reported for all of 2013 and almost six times the number reported in 2012.”
In a country with that many people (over 1.3 billion at last count), 36 thousand cases may not seem like a lot. It’s 0.003%, but remember that we don’t do math that way in epidemiology. We divide 36,000 by the number at risk, and the number at risk is indicated by the number who are not vaccinated or have lost their immunity due to disease (e.g. cancer) or treatment for a disease (e.g. cancer, again). That number, the number at risk, is pretty much uncertain because the public health infrastructure in China is, well, lacking.
But this post is not about China. It’s about the good ol’ US of A. We have a somewhat robust public health system that, in my humble opinion and when it comes to immunization, is probably up there with the best in the world. There is no child in this country that does not have access to immunizations. If you have a child in the most remote corners of this country, you can get them vaccinated at little to no cost, especially against the killers like whooping cough and measles. So why do we have measles making a comeback here in the US? Is it just the anti-vaccine crew that have done this to us? (Don’t be fooled, it is us, you and me, that will be affected if vaccine-preventable diseases make a comeback.)
Yes and no. I’ve been reading some blog posts by some very well-intentioned people, and they place all of the blame on vaccine refusers for the rise in measles that we are seeing. I read a lot of that hand-wringing in those posts. After all, anti-vaxxers are the natural enemy of vaccine supporters, right? It’s the Jenny McCarthys and Andrew Jeremy Wakefields and their followers who we must fight and fight some more, so why not blame them (and them alone) for the rise in measles, mumps, and whooping cough?
We can’t just blame them and them alone because this is a very complex issue. The federal and state governments also have some fault because they’ve made enforcing vaccination requirements a joke. There are states that allow parents to simply sign a form to let their unvaccinated disease incubators go to school. Other states allow religious exemptions though there are no actual religions that prohibit vaccination. (Maybe some of the newer, whackier religions?) And don’t get me started on the under-funding of public health overall. If I had to decide whether to enforce vaccine requirements or inspect foods, which would I do?
The educational system is also to blame because it has failed to give today’s parents the tools they need to discern between good and bad science. Very basic teachings in biology, chemistry, and math would allow people to tell that what they’re being told by anti-vaccine outfits are out-of-context facts at best and outright lies at worst. Biology would help them understand why “leaky gut,” viral shedding, and all the other things attributed to vaccines are crap science. Chemistry would help them understand why thiomersal is not “mercury” like anti-vaccine advocates would like you to think that it is. Math would help them understand things like odds ratios and relative risks.
Then there’s the media. Their continuing attempts at false balance by giving equal time to quacks when discussing vaccines confuses the unknowing, uneducated public. A hysterical anti-vaccine advocate who doesn’t let a medical doctor speak and just drones on and on about all the evil things that vaccines are believed to do is actually credible to some people. Some people want to believe, and when they see that credible news outlets invite anti-vaccine nuts, well, then their belief is confirmed.
I would love to just point the finger at outfits like NVIC and AoA and say that they’re to blame for all the measles. Heck, if it was only Andrew Jeremy Wakefield that did this to us, the solution would be simple. But the problem is huge and complex, and we pro-vaccine bloggers are not doing our audience any favors by just saying that it’s the anti-vaxxers and leaving it at that. After all, what kind of action can you take against someone with such closely-held beliefs? You can’t really change a person at that deep a level. But, if we realize that there are other causes that we can do something about, then we can, you know, do something.
Oh, and we’re a plane trip away from China and from a fresh pool of measles to land on us… That’s why I mentioned China. I almost forgot.