It’s time we stop debating and politicizing what is one of the greatest medical advancements ever.
The advent of vaccines that reliably prevent communicable illnesses was an important step in public health. It has led to a host of vaccines now available and recommended that have greatly decreased deaths and disease. In fact, the discovery and application of vaccines constitutes probably the greatest contribution to life expectancy in medical history.
Following the outbreak at Disneyland, measles is the current topic of discussion, but it shouldn’t stop there. Just a few years ago, California had some of the lowest pneumonia vaccination rates in the country. Bacterial pneumococcal infections are a leading cause of death for seniors who contract the flu because so many are not immunized.
The fact is, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pneumococcal vaccines for all people 65 years of age and older and for those 2 to 64 with certain high-risk conditions.
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And, just last year, the California Department of Public Health reported an increase in cases of whooping cough (pertussis). There were 10,831 cases in 2014, with more than 800 new cases reported in April alone – the highest monthly count since the 2010 epidemic. Pertussis is especially dangerous to infants, yet it is preventable with proper immunizations.
For years, the rates of unvaccinated children have been slowly rising due to Internet rumor-mongering and debunked “scientific” studies. In 2014, however, for the first time in a decade, the number of parents who filed personal belief exemption forms to exempt their kindergarteners from vaccinations has declined.
And, we’re starting to see headway with legislation that passed recently in California. Assembly Bill 2109 – which was sponsored by the California Medical Association and authored by then-Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Sacramento pediatrician – requires a parent or guardian seeking a personal belief exemption to first obtain a document signed by a licensed health care practitioner. In the form, the practitioner is asked to verify that the parent or guardian has been informed of the benefits and risks of immunization, as well as the health risks of the diseases a child could contract if left unvaccinated.
AB 2109 was born out of a rising concern about the increased personal belief exemptions in California and what that could mean for outbreaks of diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough. Exposure to these diseases not only puts individual children at risk, but the community as a whole, including infants too young to be immunized. Fewer personal belief exemptions leads to decreased numbers of preventable outbreaks, and it is imperative for the health of our state that we continue in this direction.
My parents saw the days of children in iron lungs and leg braces from the destructive effects of diseases like polio. I, myself, grew up in a day when the results of measles were seen regularly. Unfortunately, in these days of good public health, many of these memories have faded.
Now that these illnesses are uncommon, we shouldn’t have to resurrect their awful effects to remind people of the catastrophe, debilitation and, in some cases, death that comes along with them.
This controversy will persist as long as these unnecessary epidemics occur and recur. The debate should end. Why do we need an outbreak of preventable disease to remind us that vaccines are safe, effective and lifesaving?
Luther Cobb is president of the California Medical Association.