Way back in the early 60’s, I, along with my classmates, had to stand in line for a nurse to jab us several times with a pronged needle. Almost 20 years later, I stood in another line while an Army medic did the same thing. Yes, I was vaccinated against smallpox. Today, of course, most people don’t get this vaccine because the risk isn’t worth it.
There are side effects and risks associated with the smallpox vaccine. In the past, about 1 out of 1,000 people vaccinated for the first time experienced serious, but non-life-threatening, reactions including toxic or allergic reaction at the site of the vaccination (erythema multiforme), spread of the vaccinia virus to other parts of the body, and to other individuals. Potentially life-threatening reactions occurred in 14 to 500 people out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time. Based on past experience, it is estimated that 1 or 2 people in 1 million (0.000198%) who receive the vaccine may die as a result, most often the result of postvaccinial encephalitis or severe necrosis in the area of vaccination (called progressive vaccinia).
The reason is that smallpox no longer exists as a disease. There are two known stocks of it in freezers, but as a health threat, it isn’t. But at the time, the risk of the disease far outweighed the risk of vaccination.
Studies of smallpox cases in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that the fatality rate among persons vaccinated less than 10 years before exposure was 1.3%; it was 7% among those vaccinated 11 to 20 years prior, and 11% among those vaccinated 20 or more years prior to infection. By contrast, 52% of unvaccinated persons died.
In effect, the “balance of risk” was overwhelmingly in favor of vaccination. Today, vaccines are far and away safer than the smallpox vaccine was. The problem? People are far more worried about “the risk” of a vaccine than the actual risk of a disease. This blog post caught my attention:
Auckland couple Ian and Linda Williams thought they had made an informed decision against immunising their three children because of concerns over adverse reactions.
But they regretted their decision when middle child Alijah contracted the potentially fatal disease just before Christmas, and was put in an induced coma on life support at Starship hospital.
“It was me that put my son in this situation,” Mr Williams said.
“Parents like us make the decision to not vaccinate on very little factual information about the actual consequences of the diseases – massive pain, disability and death – and a lot of non-factual, emotive information from the internet stating inflated figures on the frequency and severity of adverse reactions and conspiracy theories about ‘evil’ doctors, governments and drug companies.”
Yes, because they thought the risk of immunizing against tetanus was too great, they didn’t get their child vaccinated. The disease turned out to be far and away worse than anything they’d imagined. It’s not just that, it’s a number of other diseases as well. For example, Washington State has the highest rate of parents deciding not to vaccinate their children. What do they also have? An epidemic of whooping cough.
And now we learn that the U.S. is in the midst of the worst whooping cough epidemic in 70 years. One of the most hard-hit states is Washington, which the CDC just announced (on 20 July) has suffered 2,520 cases so far this year, a 1300% increase over last year. This is the highest number of cases reported in Washington since 1942.
Whooping cough, or pertussis as it’s formally known, is an extremely dangerous disease to young children. It’s preventable by vaccination, but the vaccine has been the subject of numerous fear-mongering reports over the years. The “fears” and “risks” turned out to be hyped in some cases, and in others the fears turned out to be based on a scientific hoax. It’s not the only disease that has seen a resurgence due to various “anti-vaccination activists.” Measles cases have also reappeared, along with a number of tetanus cases. The current flu epidemic has caused a number of deaths, along with hospitalizations. Yet in the most vaccinated population – the military – flu hasn’t caused problems.
My childhood was spent when many of those diseases were around, without vaccines. Having had measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and having had friends with whooping cough, I can say that no one should be under any illusions that the vaccines are “worse than the disease.” Yet there are people out there, often well-known, who keep pushing the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. There’s a certain Darwinian result from that. While I would gain a certain amount of satisfaction if they were paying the price for their idiocy, the problem is that they often don’t. They make money from it, they continue to do it, and it’s other people, principally children, who pay the price for it, with their lives. All because their parents didn’t understand the true balance of risk, or believed the lies.