Signs posted at The Vancouver Clinic in Vancouver, Wash., warn patients and visitors of a measles outbreak on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. The outbreak has sickened 39 people in the Pacific Northwest, with 13 more cases suspected. At least one patient who was sick with the measles has come to this clinic for treatment since the outbreak began Jan. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus) (Photo: Gillian Flaccus, AP)
Every year, infectious diseases once believed to be in the country’s rearview mirror resurface in youngsters whose parents didn’t get them immunized.
Recently, it was the measles in a toddler and two students in Spencerport. The students were quarantined, as were four others from the same school who weren’t inoculated. On Thursday, Monroe County health officials confirmed another case, this one also in Spencerport.
Measles were thought to have been eradicated in the United States in 2000, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there hadn’t been a continuous transmission of the disease in the country within the previous year.
We don’t know why the Spencerport victims weren’t vaccinated. But it’s a good bet it stems from their parents being victims of something else — autism fraud.
The fraud dates to the 1998 publication of a subsequently debunked study that purported a link between the MMR vaccine — measles, mumps and rubella — and the onset of autism.
A vial of the M.M.R. vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. (Photo: Hailshadow, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The study, led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was published in the British medical journal The Lancet, and its findings were based on a tiny sample of just 12 children with autism-like disorders.
It didn’t take long for the findings to be rejected as junk science by the medical community, including 10 of the study’s co-authors. The Lancet retracted the story. The British Medical Journal called the research “fraudulent.”
British medical authorities eventually stripped Wakefield of his license, noting that some of his research was paid for by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers.
Despite all this, some parents continue to accept on faith a vaccine-autism relationship. They regard Wakefield’s work either as gospel or as raising enough doubt for them to forgo vaccinating their children.
The measles cases in Spencerport and the outbreaks happening now downstate and in the Pacific Northwest are the result. School officials in Webster on Thursday acknowledged a middle school student had whooping cough, another preventable illness.
“Fear is a powerful motivator,” said Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatrician in emergency medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “You hear a scary story and the ‘what ifs’ start happening. What if I choose to do something that actually hurts my child?”
Dr. Elizabeth Murray (Photo: Provided)
“I think as a society we have trouble distinguishing authority from popularity,” she continued. “If someone has an audience, a part of our consciousness automatically grants them authority.”
Perhaps the most prominent peddler of the fraud is entertainer and Playboy Playmate, Jenny McCarthy, who believes her son’s vaccination caused his autism. But countless everyday people share similar stories online.
Dr. Susan Hyman, of the URMC Levine Autism Clinic, hears many of them. She tells the storytellers what she told me: “There is no vaccine-autism link.”
What exists, according to the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, is a correlation in time between when children are immunized and when they’re diagnosed with autism.
But as the center points out, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Just because the events happen about the same time — early childhood — doesn’t mean one causes the other.
So why does the fraud persist?
Pervasive mistrust in government institutions like the CDC is one reason. Another is the media’s tendency to give equal weight to both sides of an issue, even when one side has no legitimacy. A parent’s personal story about their child’s autism is an anecdote, not data.
Still another reason is the medical community’s choice of language when speaking on the matter. Doctors say things like, “Based on the available scientific evidence, there is no vaccine-autism link,” leaving skeptics to wonder how much evidence there is.
“In science, we deal with the vocabulary of data and research,” Hyman said. “We don’t deal with the vocabulary of marketing, and that’s what the American public is used to, the vocabulary of marketing.”
Empowering fraudsters — and threatening the health of all of us — are exemptions written into laws that require children to be immunized before attending school.
Forty-seven states, including New York, allow parents to opt out of vaccines on religious grounds. Eighteen states also have exemptions for personal, moral or philosophical beliefs.
These exemptions defy science and weaken our so-called herd immunity. Health professionals say a vaccination rate of 95 percent is needed to protect a community.
State Health Department data show most schools in Monroe County are above that benchmark. But some schools aren’t. Unvaccinated students aren’t only susceptible to disease, they can infect infants who are too young to be vaccinated.
More cases of the disease are being reported from airports in Detroit, Newark, New Jersey, and Memphis, Tennessee. Here is what you should know about measles and how to tell if you’re protected.
Measles is highly contagious and potentially deadly. Many Americans have forgotten that because the vaccine program has been so successful.
The CDC heralded vaccines as among the “10 great public health achievements” of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we’ve gone backward.
The American Academy of Pediatrics took a stance in 2016 that personal and religious belief exemptions should end. California took that step in 2015, but not without a bitter fight from the anti-vaccination lobby.
New York must prepare for battle and follow suit, for the good of us all and the good of children whose parents either fail or refuse to recognize that their decisions leave more than their progeny vulnerable to diseases that were once behind us.
David Andreatta is a Democrat and Chronicle columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This content was originally published here.