North Texas Daily

Measles vaccine debate hits home in Denton

Measles vaccine debate hits home in Denton

Measles vaccine debate hits home in Denton
March 12
00:13 2015

Samantha McDonald / Senior Staff Writer

In mid-December, a person infected with measles walked into Disneyland in California, setting off a chain reaction of confirmed cases across the country and an immunization debate that has pitted doctors against vaccine-hesitant parents.

While some argue that vaccination is a personal choice and shouldn’t be decided by the government, others – particularly medical professionals and public officials – maintain that unvaccinated children pose a public safety threat.

According to the World Health Organization, measles led to the deaths of more than 145,000 people last year. Its highly transmittable nature has been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to infect 90 percent of unvaccinated individuals who come in direct or indirect contact with a person who has measles.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated and if you’re exposed to measles, there’s a good chance that you will catch it,” said Dr. John Shelton, who works at the Student Health and Wellness Center. “It’s fairly contagious.”

The CDC also reported that measles complications can result in ear infections, which can lead to permanent hearing loss; pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in children; and encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, which can cause convulsions and leave a person deaf or mentally disabled.

At its worst case, one or two children who contract measles will die from the virus.

“Nothing’s 100 percent safe, but if you look at the risks versus benefits, I think the benefits are a lot higher than the risks,” Shelton said.

Starting off on the wrong foot

In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet, claiming that vaccination was linked to autism. The study has since been discredited by many reputable epidemiological sources, including the journal itself, but it had already convinced some parents that their children would become autistic upon inoculation.

“I can understand their reluctance,” Shelton said. “Sometimes to me it seems that [doctors are] sure giving a lot of shots to kids, but on the other hand, it certainly beats somebody dying.”

As the owner and pharmacist at Community Pharmacy on Teasley Lane, Kelly Selby has seen an increase in the number patients requesting various vaccinations since the Disneyland outbreak. He said that he also expects a high request for the measles vaccine, especially during the spring break and travel seasons.

Among the biggest concerns raised by parents prior to vaccinating their children are the components of the vaccines. Selby said that some of his patients specifically ask for preservative-free vaccines, which do not contain any traces of thimerosal, a mercury-based ingredient used to prevent contamination of vaccines administered to multiple people.

“I think everybody should be vaccinated,” Selby said. “Maybe we don’t need to vaccinate quite as many all at once; I’m a little more in favor of spreading them out a bit for small children, but I’m a big proponent of vaccination.”

The view from each side

Wakefield’s study is not the only reason the anti-vaccination movement has raised attention to the supposed dangers associated with vaccines.

Television personality Jenny McCarthy, an activist against vaccination, claims that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine, or MMR, caused her son’s autism. Political talk show host Bill Maher has publicly warned viewers not to get the swine flu vaccine, which he said was similar to letting someone stick “a disease in your arm.” Radio host and attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has indicated his belief in a connection between thimerosal and autism.

On the other hand, vaccine advocates span from lawmakers such as California senator Richard Pan, who is leading a bill that seeks to end personal exemptions to vaccinations, and musical artist Jennifer Lopez, a spokesperson for the Silence the Sounds of Pertussis, a campaign against whooping cough.

Journalism senior Brittany Fholer, whose mother is a nurse, said that she also believes in the importance of vaccination. She grew up with her grandparents, which along with children make up two of the largest groups who are threatened by those who aren’t vaccinated.

“When someone says they’d rather not vaccinate their kid because of autism or another possible disability, the message I get is that they’d rather [have] a dead child than a disabled child,” Fholer said. “I actually think that if someone doesn’t vaccinate because of personal or religious beliefs, then they shouldn’t go into public places.”

Prevention is better than cure

Although a majority of the population in the U.S. is vaccinated (with all 50 states requiring vaccination for viruses such as measles and polio), a number of children and adults cannot be immunized for medical reasons, including severe allergies and other disorders.

Because they cannot receive protection, these individuals are at a constant risk of contracting highly contagious viruses. However, an individual who isn’t qualified for certain vaccines can receive “herd immunity,” which happens when a significant portion of a community is immunized against a disease.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when most members of society are protected by vaccination, the probability of an outbreak is substantially lowered, allowing protection for immunocompromised individuals.

“There are some people who really have legitimate health reasons for not being vaccinated, but it’s sort of a responsibility from the rest of us to provide that benefit to them by making sure that everybody who could be vaccinated is vaccinated,” biology professor Lee Hughes said.

Other common illnesses that vaccines can prevent are meningitis, which is required under Texas state law; influenza, or the seasonal flu; and yellow fever, which is strongly recommended for travelers.

Hughes said it is important that parents consider the successful record or history of vaccination to understand its positive impact on children’s health. A study released by the U.S. National Library of Medicine reported that nearly 500 people died from measles each year before widespread vaccination was available in 1963.

“We don’t want to ever go backwards like that and get into a situation where people who could be completely protected with getting their recommended shots would go and get a disease that they should have never been exposed to,” Hughes said. “Those are really serious diseases, but they’re completely preventable due to vaccination.”

Featured Image: A syringe and two vaccines sit atop a table in an exam room at the Health and Wellness Center. Photo by Adrian Warfield – Staff Photographer

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