One cool winter Florida morning about thirteen years ago I turned on my car radio and could not believe what I was hearing. The local radio station had a guest on the show explaining the dangers of vaccination. The guest was a local mom, touting her website and social media presence centered around the horrors of vaccination. She claimed that there was concrete proof that vaccination caused autism and a suite of other childhood disorders. She also spoke about the effects on adults, including causing Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, and that we all were being systematically poisoned just for Big Pharma’s profits.
I’m a scientist that understands how vaccination works and its role in protecting public health. I did what anyone concerned about her message would do, I found her website and reached out with a friendly email. For the next few weeks (and about once a year thereafter) we’d go back-and-forth with claims and rebuttals, long messy threads that were a symptom of her profound misunderstanding of disease, human immunity, and fundamental chemistry.
As a scientist it was pure frustration — how could someone be so misguided and yet so influential in guiding parents’ decisions on vaccination? Even worse, why could I give her good information and it just didn’t matter?
My main argument was that the results were clear from epidemiology. Smallpox, measles, mumps, polio… these common diseases were either eradicated or eliminated from the industrialized world because of a coordinated public heath effort of immunization.
She disagreed. She claimed that disease incidence and associated mortality was well established before the vaccination, a point that the chart above might corroborate. She said that measles-related health issues decreased only because of improved sanitation, water quality, and medical intervention after the disease had taken hold. Vaccines had nothing to do with it, and if anything, caused more debilitating health problems.
Back in 2005 I was a little handcuffed by this response. After all, it was hard to argue with the trend. As a scientist, we couldn’t actually do the experiment where we would treat one population of children and not treat another. That would be incredibly unethical. To let children suffer to demonstrate the cause-effect relationship of vaccination would be unconscionable. After all, even a disease as mundane as measles can develop into pneumonia or encephalitis — potentially leading to blindness, deafness, and permanent cognitive disability.
The good news? As of 2000, measles was eliminated from the USA.
Welcome to 2018/2019. That unethical experiment in human suffering has been done — by parents that failed to immunize their children.
Since that morning radio show appearance the anti-vaccination movement, featuring the medical prowess of Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, has convinced many parents to refuse vaccination. Laws mandating vaccination have been weakened. Since 2010 the numbers of the unprotected children continue to climb, with some locales reaching substantial numbers of unvaccinated children.
Now the experiment to test the simple hypothesis: Vaccines prevent disease.
- If vaccination did not matter as the local mom contends, there should be zero incidence of disease among these populations. Sanitation, water quality and nutrition are all just fine in these kids, typically residing in affluent areas.
2. But if vaccination does have an effect, the incidence of this highly contagious disease should spike.
And the results of their experiment?
— In Clark County Oregon 47 cases are confirmed. Forty-one had not been immunized and five could not be verified. The other one received only the first dose of the two-dose schedule. Most of them are children. The outbreak has led the Governor to declare a public health emergency.
—There are 130 cases in New York State, the majority children.
— Sixty-four cases have occurred in an Orthodox Jewish community after being exposed from an infected child visiting from Israel.
— In Houston, two adult women and four children under the age of two have measles.
Cases have also been reported in Illinois, Colorado, Georgia, Connecticut and California. My prediction — northern California is a measles powder keg waiting to go off.
Abroad. Not all low-vaccination numbers are due to anti-vaccination rhetoric and associated celebrities. Sometimes it is a question of access to the vaccine.
— The island nation of Madagascar faces a measles epidemic. Physicians had not seen cases in over a decade, but then an explosion happened in October 2018. Since then there have been over 50,000 cases and 300 deaths, mostly children. Madagascar has a vaccination rate of about 50%. Their experiment was not done by choice.
— Similarly in the Philippines measles rates are spiking in children because parents stopped vaccinating following a controversy over the Dengue virus vaccine.
— In Venezuela there were over 5500 cases and 75 deaths due to measles.
Ironically, vaccination rates are spiking in Washington State and Portland, OR, as parents that shunned vaccines now realize that following science-based health advice might keep Darwin from claiming their children.
It is absolutely an outrage that this disease was absent from the USA in 2000 and a potent anti-vaccine movement, steeped in science denial, brought it back. My hope is now that we did the experiment we can make some adjustments, returning to mandatory immunization, removing opt-out legislation, and protecting the most vulnerable from a completely preventable disease.
Kevin Folta is a professor at the University of Florida that studies plant genomics, photobiology and science communication. His funding records can all be seen at www.kevinfolta.com/transparency