Outbreak energizes discussion on vaccines

By Irene Park, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 4, 2015

Health officials declared measles eliminated from the United States in 2000, but the recent outbreak in December, originating in Disneyland, has resulted in 102 measles cases during January alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Common vaccines protect against serious diseases including measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and chickenpox. In an interview with CBS on Sunday, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said the CDC has seen a growing number of people who are not vaccinated in recent years, which makes communities more vulnerable to such outbreaks.

“That number is building up among young adults and adults in society,” Frieden said. “And that makes us vulnerable. We have to make sure that measles doesn’t get a foothold in the U.S.”

Richard Besser, ABC News’ chief health and medical editor, said on ABC News last month that unvaccinated children are at risk of falling sick with various diseases, and also put vaccinated people around them at risk because vaccines are not 100-percent protective.

In an e-mail interview, Mary Tocco, director of vaccine research at Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines, said unvaccinated children are not the problem. She said measles vaccines are ineffective and unvaccinated children are blamed to hide this reality. Tocco added that the media is overhyping how dangerous the outbreak really is.

“This witch-hunt for unvaccinated children is a smokescreen for vaccine failure!” Tocco wrote. “(Measles) is not an epidemic! As of Jan. 23, 2015, there are only 101 people in 11 states that have measles!”

Suzanne Waltman, president of Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines, said the risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits, mentioning severe side effects, the chemical makeup of vaccines and potential contribution to the recent increase in autism.

“We have to consider that vaccination is a toxin,” Waltman said. “You are injecting yourself with a virus, mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde.”

Waltman added that she believes the best way to fight diseases is by maintaining a healthy immune system through natural methods such as proper nutrition and exercise.

Gary Freed, professor of pediatrics and community health, holds a different viewpoint. He said vaccines are beneficial because they prevent life-threatening illnesses. He also said research shows vaccines are safe, and that studies emphasizing the danger of vaccination are incorrect and have been discredited. Freed denied the link between vaccinations and autism.

“There have been many scares about the side effects of vaccines,” Freed said. “From research that has been proven incorrect, has been fraudulent, has been discredited, yet still lives on the Internet and is still spoken about by people.”

Michigan is one of 20 states that exempt people from vaccination for non-medical reasons, including religious and personal beliefs. Forty-eight states allow exemptions for religious reasons, but not for personal beliefs.

Robert Ernst, medical director at the University Health System medical director, said this law prevents UHS from building a vaccination registry that would keep track of the students’ vaccination records. Ernst said as a result, UHS does not know the exact rate of unvaccinated students.

“We don’t really know,” he said. “There is no such statute for individuals entering college in Michigan, so we have not had a very robust registry of individual students’ vaccination record to know the percentage of students who are unvaccinated.”

Since Jan. 1, a new Michigan Department of Community Health policy requires parents in Michigan to receive education from a health worker before opting their children out of vaccination for non-medical reasons.

Freed said parents not vaccinating their children for non-medical reasons does not have a benefit, but rather leaves children at risk for potential consequences of the diseases, such as paralysis from polio or brain damage from whooping cough.

In the end, the parents make the ultimate choice to vaccinate their children or not, not the clinicians. According to Freed, parents refusing to vaccinate their children can lead to doctors refusing to treat the children in the future.

“(Some doctors) don’t want those children to put the other children at the practice at risk of preventable diseases,” Freed said. “Some also believe that if parents don’t trust the physician’s judgment for advice for regarding something basic like immunizations, then they are unlikely to develop a shared vision for the care for their children for other preventive care, or care when the child becomes ill.”

Sarah Clark, associate research scientist at the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases, said college students are not traditionally considered “vulnerable,” but they are at risk since they live in close proximity to one other and suffer from unhealthy conditions such as sleep deprivation. As a result, it is easy for a disease to spread through dorms and houses.

Clark added that students still could get vaccinated if they did not as children, and they should do it as soon as possible to minimize the chances of exposing themselves to the preventable diseases.

“The time to (get vaccinated) is now,” she said.