India was officially declared polio-free by the World Health Organization just a few weeks ago, and there is little doubt that their polio eradication program led to one of the biggest global health successes in recent times. The "secret" behind this huge achievement is not really a secret at all. It wasn't better sanitation, or universal access to safe drinking water, or huge doses of vitamin C that did it. It was mass vaccination.
While India fought hard to free itself from a disease that crippled over 200,000 children a year when the eradication initiative was started in 1988, some parents in developed countries are opting to reject vaccines for their children. From time to time, news reports give the impression that vaccination rates are dropping to the point that vaccine rejectionism is becoming trendy.
Vaccine Rejectionism Becoming Trendy?
AFP ran a story with the title "In US, Vaccine Denial Goes Mainstream", in which one mom with a law degree said that "doctors don't know everything" and she prefers that her child battles the disease naturally. If her child would get sick, she'd just treat the disease however it needed to be treated, the woman declared.
Meanwhile, NPR reminded listeners and readers that California's recent battle with whooping cough was linked to growing rates of vaccine refusal, and that measles outbreaks have been reported in Southern California, New York and British Columbia. Doctors, NPR says, report that parents come in already convinced that not vaccinating is the right thing to do.
It is clear that certain geographical pockets are seeing more vaccine rejectionism, and it's clear that this can indeed result in the rapid comeback of diseases that could have largely been a thing of the past.
Are Vaccination Rates Really Dropping?
How dire is the situation really? In the United States, 48 of the 50 states allow parents to opt out of immunization for their children by signing an exemption form, on religious grounds and in some cases philosophical grounds too. Yet data from the World Health Organization shows that vaccination rates have remained rather steady over the years in the US.
Most vaccines have a coverage of over 90 percent of the relevant population. Only the last dose of the Rotavirus vaccine was less popular in 2012, the last year for which data is currently available.
There is no huge drop in vaccination rates, then. Perhaps the next update of the WHO's vaccine monitoring system in July this year will show some changes, and perhaps not.
Why do parents reject vaccines? Fears over possible side effects (including the now debunked idea that vaccines can cause autism) which have been in the headlines a lot in recent years, are one reason. The idea that vaccine-preventable diseases aren't really all that dangerous is another, and some parents openly state that they prefer their children to get natural immunity to a disease — by catching it, of course.
It doesn't take much Googling to find your way onto discussion boards where vaccine-rejectionist parents share information. All those parents believe themselves to be educated about vaccines, usually after internet "research". Until symptoms start showing up. "My son has a swollen face and a fever. Could it be mumps? Or measles? Or... And what do I do now?" If you'd really done your research and were truly educated about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases, wouldn't you know?
Vaccine rejectionism isn't becoming mainstream just yet, but the increasingly vocal objections to vaccines are scary. We want Rukhsar Kathoon, currently four years old and the last person to be diagnosed with polio in India, to be the last of an era and to hear the good news that the world is completely polio free in her lifetime. We don't want her to shake her head in disbelief because a bunch of western parents decided to bring back diseases that could have been eradicated.