How Fear of Disaese Has Changed in My Lifetime
Early in January, someone I know spent time in an emergency room with heart attack symptoms. While waiting for test results, they realized that the patient a few feet away was suffering from one of the highly contagious diseases for which most schools require vaccination. My friend has a severely compromised immune system caused by a three-year bout with undiagnosed Lyme disease. The disease next door could very well have taken the life of my friend.
During my childhood, the practice of medicine was much different from what exists today. Almost all doctors operated personal practices. Their offices were in town. With little public transportation available at the time, most doctors would visit their patients in their homes. The only vaccines available at the time were for smallpox. No one was allowed to attend public schools unless they had a vaccination scar. No exceptions.
Childhood diseases were rampant. Just about everyone I knew suffered from measles, German measles, chickenpox, whooping cough or mumps. But what filled all families with terror every summer was the threat of polio. Many children never learned to swim because of the fear of polio. Someone caught it every summer. Theater newsreels showed the torture of being enclosed from the neck down in iron lungs. Many, including our President, FDR, permanently lost the use of their legs for life. I can say without doubt that we were much more worried over polio than over the threat of nuclear attack. Pregnant women also faced the terror of German measles. Catching it while carrying a child could cause birth defects.
About the time that my wife and I were having children, what seemed at the time to be miracles occurred. Effective vaccines became available for polio and then all the other childhood diseases. We were very pleased to free our children from these serious health threats. Within a few decades, many of the diseases appeared to be completely eradicated.
In the 1990s, rumors began to circulate claiming that popular vaccines caused medical defects, notably autism. In 1998, British researcher Dr. Andrew Wakefield published an article in Lancelet medical journal claiming that his study supported such claims. Many parents throughout the world became fearful of vaccines and stopped immunizing their children. Large class action suits followed in both Britain and the U.S. on the issue. Fortunately, other researchers performed numerous studies that disproved the claims against the vaccines. The science is in. Almost all of the scares touted in the news media about vaccines have been conclusively disproved. In fact, investigations in Britain have established that Wakefield’s original study relied on fraudulent data and is totally unreliable. Lancelet has repudiated the article. Dr. Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine. One damning factor was that a British association of trial attorneys in part funded his research.
Unfortunately, there remains a substantial cadre of people who still believe Wakefield’s conclusions and refuse to have their children vaccinated. The results are predictable. Measles, once believed stamped out, is on the rise. An epidemic is currently raging in Orange County, California. Disneyland appears to be the epicenter. An article in the January 23rd Washington Post established that the majority of anti-vaxxers live in affluent areas. Poor people still welcome the protections vaccines provide.
The studies mentioned also show that the anti-vaccine people do not trust science, and that confronting them with scientific evidence only makes them more likely to reject vaccinations. They hang onto junk science with a religious intensity. The opponents of vaccines are dangerous. They are not just endangering their own children. They are endangering the health and lives of all others who are susceptible to the diseases such as my friend in the emergency room.
"Polio vaccine poster" by Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC/ Mary Hilpertshauser - This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #7224.