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Medical Practice: The Growth of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Providing quality health care is already a difficult enterprise for doctors and nurses. According to the World Health Organization half of people who are prescribed medicine do not take them correctly, which could cause even more health problems than they already experience. Add to this the fact that about 49 million people don't have health insurance, leaving them with no safety net if they get sick.

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This is already a scary notion, but there are many people who skip out on necessary inoculations because they feel that they are dangerous. There is little to no evidence for some of the claims being made, and yet more and more people are opting out of being vaccinated for preventable diseases, including those already thought eradicated in this country. Such decisions to opt out are motivated by reasons ranging from celebrity statements to religious beliefs. These statements, however, are harmful on both an individual and a community level.

Measles is making a comeback

Measles used to be a moderately dangerous disease, killing about 500 Americans each year. In 1994 the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) formulated a plan to eliminate measles by the year 2000 through the use of wide spread vaccinations. The plan called for a one-time vaccine for children aged 9-14 months as a catch-up response. All other children would be vaccinated through check-ups starting at the age of 12 months. Thanks to this plan, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classified measles as eradicated in the Western Hemisphere. The cases that were diagnosed were imported from other countries, brought back to the US by people who travelled overseas. Thanks to PAHOs vaccination plan the US became pretty safe from outbreaks of measles.

That has changed recently. In 2011 there were about 220 reported cases of measles and 17 outbreaks in the US. An outbreak is classified as an occurrence of three or more cases that are linked by a common area and a common timeframe. This is a big jump from the previous years, and the median number of cases for 2001-2010 was 60 and the median number of outbreaks was 4.

An outbreak of measles has occurred among a group of 25 people in Texas this year. 15 of the cases are from members of the Eagle Mountain International Church, brought about by a visitor to the congregation. Nine children and six adults were infected, ranging from 4 months to 44 years old.

New York is also experiencing a rise in the number of measles cases, with 58 being reported this year so far. Many of them have happened among Orthodox Jewish communities. In 2011 21 measles cases were reported in Minnesota.

All of this is very alarming to doctors and other health professionals as "measles is very contagious, spreads like wildfire and can be very serious," according to Lori Linstead, director of immunization services at the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Oklahoma hasn't had a reported case of measles since 1997, and given that it shares a large border with Texas officials in the state have reason to be worried. They are on alert in case the disease spreads to Oklahoma.

How are these outbreaks happening?

There is a growing anti-vaccine movement in the US, which may help account for the growing number of infectious disease that are beginning to occur in larger rates than before. In 2010 pertussis cases reached epidemic levels in California, and the state instituted a law that required older students to be vaccinated, and made the inoculation more widely available for residents who needed it. Outbreaks of pertussis, along with measles and mumps, have also been reported in Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Of the 15 members of the Eagle Mountain congregation who were diagnosed with measles, 12 of them hadn't been fully immunized. For the other three there was no definitive record of vaccination. Other than a 4 month old, who was too young to receive the measles immunization, all of the others were old enough to have been vaccinated. The reason that they were not was because the pastor of their church, Terri Parsons, has been spreading information about the dangers of receiving immunizations. She has been critical of vaccinations in the past, and even with the recent outbreaks in her church still said that "[t]he concerns we have are primarily with young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time." Parsons' father, televangelist Kenneth Copeland, has also been a vocal opponent of vaccinations for children. He is quoted as saying that "I got to looking into [immunizations] and some of it is criminal…You're not putting - what is it Hepatitis B - in an infant! That's crazy."

This thinking is not centered just in faith based communities. It is permeating many areas of our society; even celebrities are passing along fear of immunizations, and sometimes false information along with it. Actress Jenny McCarthy claimed a few years ago that a vaccine was responsible for her son becoming autistic, even going on Oprah to speak about her experience. When her son no longer showed any signs of being autistic, McCarthy said that a proper diet and vitamins had helped cure him. She later admitted that he never had autism, but she still promotes an anti-vaccine agenda.

McCarthy isn't the only famous personality who believes in keeping vaccinations away from children. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann also promotes the anti-vaccine agenda, and in 2011 after a debate with other potential Republican Presidential candidates she said that she had met a young mother who said her daughter had received a vaccine for human papilloma virus (HPV). The mother claimed that the HPV vaccine made her daughter mentally retarded, and Congresswoman Bachmann repeated those claims in two different interviews. Bachmann further went on to say that the vaccine "can have very dangerous side effects" and that it "is a very real concern." Bachmann never vetted the claims made by the mother, but went on to cite them as an absolute truth, although she did try and hedge a little when she said that "people have to draw their own conclusions."

Why is the anti-vaccine movement dangerous?

Now, you may ask "don't people have the right to choose whether or not they receive a vaccine?" Yes, in the most libertarian sense they do, but having as many people inoculated against infectious diseases as possible is important for the health of an overall community, and especially for those who cannot receive vaccines because they have previous diseases, like Down syndrome, which adversely compromise their immune system. Inoculating a large percentage of the population creates a phenomenon called "herd immunity" in which "a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease" in such that "most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak," according the government website on vaccinations. Without this herd immunity, many more people may become infected with diseases they may not normally get, and the safety net for those who cannot receive immunizations breaks down.

Opting out of vaccination is also dangerous because it often comes from specious information that has been proven wrong, but nevertheless continues to spread. A study by Andrew Wakefield published in The Lancet cited a link between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. His study was based on 12 children who had the disease, which is a very small sample size to use in order to prove any theory. Wakefield was also invested in a company that was producing an alternative to the MMR vaccine that was in circulation already. After the study was released, many more were conducted based on larger numbers of patients and no link was found. In fact, it was discovered that Wakefield had cooked his study, fudging the numbers so that the research would point out the facts he wanted. Wakefield lost his license, and The Lancet retracted the study.

Measles kills one out of every thousand people who become infected, and HPV is responsible for different types of cancer, including cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, and throat, according to the CDC. While there are certain segments of the population who cannot receive vaccines, and others who might shy away because of personal fears or lack of health care, spreading false information that causes others to forego health treatments that could protect them is dangerous and irresponsible. The Supreme Court recently upheld the convictions of two parents who did not seek proper treatment for their diabetic daughter. Madeline Neumann died of a disease that is very treatable with medicine because her parents belonged to a church that preached faith healing.

This is not to knock on those who have faith in a higher power and use that to guide their lives. It is a knock against those who spread false information and put lives in danger by producing fear and uncertainty using unsupported facts. McCarthy has been quoted as saying that "[i]t is amazing what celebrity can do if you do it with 100 percent good intention and heart." It is also amazing the damage specious data and falsified studies can do when someone in a position of power spreads a singular story without vetting its veracity.

Doctors, nurses, and long-term care professionals have a hard enough job when all the facts are present. They have to compete with rising health care costs that may force many people to opt out of the system, and manage care large number of Americans who still will not be covered under the Affordable Car Act. There is no need for them to compete against the anti-vaccine movement when it is based in fear, not fact. Hopefully things are going to change for the better, as Parson's has recently said that "Our children and even adults of all ages need to be immunized now to stop the spread of measles and prevent those potential complications. The disease is only shut down when all are immunized."

About the Author:

Jamar Ramos has been writing poetry and fiction for many years, and earned his bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For the last three years, Mr. Ramos switched to producing blog posts for CBSSports.com and writing professionally as an independent contributor for a number of Internet sites. His creative works have been featured in The Bohemian and The San Matean. He now contributes articles for OnlineDegrees.com, OnlineColleges.com, and AlliedHealthWorld.com.