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Commentary

The Measles Vaccine Follies
The New York Times, 8-9-06

The New York Times chronicles a recent measles outbreak in Indiana, and argues that parents need to take the threat of childhood diseases more seriously. Children who aren't vaccinated are being put in danger primarily due to parents' fears–whipped up by irresponsible media reports and unscrupulous plaintiff's attorneys—that childhood vaccinations are unsafe. In reality, vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and any rare risks from vaccination are far outweighed by the greater risks of a child contracting or spreading a dangerous disease.

The outbreak in Indiana last year, which was detailed in a recent report in The New England Journal of Medicine, provided evidence of what can happen to a triumph of public health when a community lets its guard down. A 17–year–old unvaccinated girl who visited an orphanage in Romania on a church mission picked up the virus there.

When the girl returned, she attended a gathering of some 500 church members that included many other unvaccinated children. Most had been schooled at home and thus avoided compulsory shots. Their families had access to the vaccine but declined the opportunity because of reports that it might cause autism or other problems. Their fears overrode assurances by health authorities that the vaccine is extremely safe and has no link to autism.

By the time the outbreak had run its course, 34 people had become ill. Three were hospitalized, including one with life–threatening complications. No doubt the toll would have been considerably higher had not most of the community been protected by vaccinations. The vaccine isn't foolproof—two of the Indiana victims had been vaccinated—but it protects the vast majority of recipients.

Families that evade vaccination put themselves and their neighbors at risk. All young children, not just those attending school, should be required to get immunized.



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