100 million reasons why vaccine deniers are wrong

A Pakistani health worker, left gives a polio vaccine to a child, who was displaced with his family from Pakistan's tribal areas due to fighting between the Taliban and the army. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

The breakout of measles in Disneyland in late 2014 ignited a long-simmering debate over vaccines in the United States. This time, people from political leaders to medical professionals to countless media outlets are weighing in about vaccines. A month has passed since the outbreak and the debate continues over whether vaccines are safe and whether parents should be mandated to vaccinate their children.

Proponents of vaccines tend to focus on the things vaccines can do. What about the things vaccines have already accomplished? They helped rid the world of smallpox and put polio on the brink of eradication. People are putting their lives at stake to vaccinate children against polio in Pakistan. Soon, polio will join the dinosaurs and the dodo bird as an extinct part of the world’s past. Then there is this: vaccines have prevented more than 100 million serious cases of contagious diseases in the United States since 1924.

It is worth repeating, vaccines have prevented more than 100 million serious cases of contagious diseases in the United States since 1924.

Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh looked at the number of reported cases of polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria and whooping cough before and after vaccines were available. The projections are based on how many cases would have occurred if a vaccine were not developed for each. The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late 2013. It showed just how important vaccines have been in a historical context and why they still matter today.

All the infections avoided over nearly a century could be for naught if Americans spend more time getting health advice from former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy as opposed to scientific researchers.

“We also are able to see a resurgence of some of these diseases in the past several decades as people forget how devastating they can be and start refusing vaccines,” said lead author Dr. Willem G. van Panhuis, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health, in a statement.

McCarthy and other vaccine deniers argue that that they cause more harm than good. The swell over the past decade can be traced to the discredited study published in the medical journal The Lancet by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with autism. Despite the British journal retracting the study over grave ethical lapses by Wakefield, the damage by the study was done.

Parents in the West, from the United Kingdom to the United States, withheld vaccines from their children. As a result measles recently made a comeback in the United Kingdom and there have been more reported cases of whooping cough, pertussis. The whooping cough vaccine has been available for decades, but last year saw the largest outbreak of the disease since 1959.

A study published in fall 2013 in Pediatrics found that a lack of vaccines was one of the factors that contributed to the 9120 reported cases in California in 2010, the most since 1947. People living in areas of California that had a high rate of personal belief vaccine exemptions were 2.5 times more likely to catch whooping cough.

“Our findings suggest that communities with large numbers of intentionally unvaccinated or undervaccinated persons can lead to pertussis outbreaks. In the presence of limited vaccine effectiveness and waning immunity,” concluded the authors.

Vaccines can prevent against some diseases, but there is no vaccine for bad decisions. Those decisions are aiding the return of infections that were not problems for years.

The data dive is an impressive accomplishment and one that the researchers hope will help others out. It was put together thanks to financial backing from the U.S. National Institutes for Health, NIH, and the Gates Foundation.

Aside from the stunning findings, the hope is that the new database will help inform further research. All of it is available on a public database.

“Analyzing historical epidemiological data can reveal patterns that help us understand how infectious diseases spread and what interventions have been most effective,” said Irene Eckstrand, Ph.D., of NIH

The team digitized the data set and named it Tycho Brahe, the Danish nobleman who paved the way for Johannes Kepler’s discover of the laws of planetary motion.  Project TychoTM hopes to be the information that can inform the next Kepler of infectious diseases.

“By ‘rescuing’ these historical disease data and combining them into a single, open-access, computable system, we now can better understand the devastating impact of epidemic diseases, and the remarkable value of vaccines in preventing illness and death,” explained senior author Dr. Donald S. Burke, Pitt Public Health dean and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.