GOZUN: Scientific evidence continues to support need for vaccinations

gozun colorThe recent case of a Marquette student hospitalized for bacterial meningitis drew headlines across the Milwaukee area and seemed to be but the latest in a series of health-related scares in the media.

From last year’s Ebola outbreak to the recent spike in measles infections across the country, some observers may be tempted to draw some comparisons to the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages or the Spanish Flu that killed more people than the First World War that preceded it.

However, in terms of sheer numbers, the diseases of today are not the killers their predecessors were. And despite the recent controversy surrounding them, vaccines, and their widespread usage, still deserve the bulk of the credit for this reduction in fatalities.

For most of human history, the world’s population grew at a relatively constant rate only to explode during the 20th century thanks to a drop in disease-related deaths, especially among children. The aforementioned Spanish Flu killed around 675,000 Americans from 1918 to 1929. In comparison, the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 had only 3,433 confirmed deaths. When you consider the United States population in 1918 was about one-third what it was 91 years later, the actual differences between casualty rates become much more obvious. Imagine how many lives would have been saved if they had the flu shot, something you can get over the counter at Walgreens for just $32, which has been around since the 1910s.

In 2013, according to the CDC, the six leading causes of death for Americans ages 15-24 were accidents, suicides, murders, cancer, heart disease and genetic defects. None of these are in any way contagious. In fact, the leading contagious causes of death, influenza and pneumonia, resulted in only 147 deaths for that age bracket in 2013. It says a lot about how far medicine has come when you have a higher chance of dying being struck by a bus on Wisconsin Ave. than you do from a communicable disease.

The reason why most Americans do not have to worry about plagues wiping out half of the town is because of a culture of prevention. Arguably, the greatest lifesaver of the past 100 years has been vaccination. In 1979, smallpox, the same disease that decimated Native American populations following European contact, was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization following worldwide vaccination campaigns.

Unfortunately, the success of vaccinations has masked some of its necessity. As one rather sensational anti-vaccine website declares, “ZERO U.S. Measles Deaths in 10 Years, but Over 100 Measles Vaccine Deaths Reported.” Whether the author would have preferred more people to die from measles over the same period is not clear, though there is a high possibility that this would have occurred had vaccination not been the norm. Despite claims that vaccines cause autism  (which have been repeatedly addressed in peer-reviewed literature) to more far-fetched conspiracies regarding government microchips, studies have repeatedly shown vaccines to be effective and safe for the vast majority of people.

Some people, however, remain convinced they are harmful and are opposed to vaccinating themselves or their children. Is it justifiable to force them to get immunized? Perhaps not. People generally have the right to decide which medications they take and though they can pose a problem for public health, it still sounds strange that someone could be sent to jail for refusing a vaccine.

Thankfully, freedom of association exists. While the government cannot force parents to vaccinate children, they can make it a prerequisite for attending public schools, just as many private schools do today. Workplaces can make vaccination a prerequisite of employment and insurance companies could use it as a requirement for coverage.

Such societal pressures could ensure that those concerned about immunization surround themselves with similarly thinking people. While individuals are free to risk their own health, they do not have the right to endanger the people they learn or work with. Hopefully, one day such agreements will be viewed as inconsequential, since in the vaccination debate, the evidence leans heavily in the right direction.