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Taking potshots at vaccines

Glenn Ellis | 4/12/2019, 6 a.m.
Measles cases have cropped up across 12 states over the last 10 weeks, nearly two decades since the highly contagious ...

The attorneys representing parents in that lawsuit against measles vaccine manufacturers paid Dr. Wakefield to fabricate evidence showing that the vaccines were linked to autism. Despite the fact that his paper was quickly retracted and Dr. Wakefield was found guilty of professional misconduct and his medical license was revoked, anti-vaccination sentiment has become more entrenched in the years since.

Dr. Wakefield also had applied for patents for an MMR vaccine substitute and treatments for his alleged MMR vaccine-induced gut disorder. So, not only was he allegedly paid by lawyers to cast doubt on the MMR vaccine, but he stood to personally gain from the outcome of his research.

It’s not an overstatement to say that measles is one of the most infectious diseases known to mankind. When people aren’t immunized, it’s extremely easy to catch measles. In an unvaccinated population, one person with measles can infect 12 to 18 others. That’s way higher than other viruses such as Ebola, HIV or SARS. With Ebola, one case usually leads to two others. With HIV and SARS, one case usually leads to another four.

The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective after two doses, which usually also protects against mumps, rubella and sometimes varicella, or chickenpox, according to the CDC. A well-vaccinated population takes on a “herd immunity” that hinders outbreaks. As soon as vaccination coverage drops below 95 percent, outbreaks are inevitable.

Most of the people with measles and mumps right now weren’t immunized from the viruses. They all live in places that permit a variety of nonmedical — religious or philosophical — exemptions from vaccines. In 45 states, even without an exemption, children can be granted “conditional entrance” to school on the promise that they will be vaccinated, but schools don’t always bother to follow up.

Even though all 50 states have legislation requiring vaccines for students entering school, almost every state allows exemptions for people with religious beliefs against immunizations, and 17 states grant philosophical exemptions for those opposed to vaccines because of personal or moral beliefs.

Two caveats: The legacy of the syphilis study at Tuskegee lingers in the minds of many people, fueling mistrust, and the majority of people supporting the anti-vaccine movement are highly educated white parents.

I’m always amazed at the number of people who claim religious exemption, but have never set foot in a church, mosque or synagogue.

Facts don’t lie, people do. Truth matters.

The writer is a research bioethics fellow at Harvard Medical School and an active media contributor and radio commentator who also lectures nationally and internationally on heath-related topics.