Critics of vaccines are poor shots

July 22, 2011

I have followed the vigorous debate in The Sun about childhood vaccinations, their risks and their benefits. Some writers have taken the side that society at large should be more sympathetic to those parents who fear vaccinations and avoid them for their children and themselves. Others have spewed vitriol against that choice as generally dangerous for public health and therefore to society at large.

In this acrimonious debate, resolution does not seem near, even as the anti-vaccination camp drags us ever closer to the dark era before any tools were available for prevention of deadly infectious diseases. Those who fear vaccinations in the U.S. are on the wrong track. Many of them are educated and affluent. They used to be few in number, but they are growing in strength, stridency and rhetorical confidence. Their swagger can be witnessed all over the land, in letters, blogs and op-ed pieces. Some of them are celebrities who appear on talk shows to claim their individual adverse experiences with vaccinations should be extrapolated as universal fear of vaccines.

Most people born and brought up in this country and alive today have never seen small pox, a lethal and highly contagious viral illness, with a mortality rate of 30 percent. I was born in India, and I have witnessed the ravages of this disease. Survivors are marked for life with pitted scars on their faces and bodies. Only in 1980 could we really say that we eradicated this disease globally, and that was a public health triumph, achieved by worldwide vaccination. Now, the naysayers are turning the clock back. Even as scientists are searching for vaccines to conquer scourges like AIDS and Hepatitis C, the pharmaceutical industry is demonized for not producing products that are safe for 100 percent of the population. But how is that possible?

For every medication given, every preventive step taken and every surgery performed, there will always be a subset of people who will have side effects based on their genetic makeup, immune and nutritional status, allergies and other unknown causes. Scientists must strive to discover and define factors that make some recipients of vaccines more susceptible to unusual or unexpected side effects. Perhaps parents who have genuine fears about vaccines can be given a modified schedule by pediatricians so that their children can receive preventive shots over a longer period of time, but not taking the vaccines at all should not be a choice.

In some states, parents can quote religious reasons for not getting their kids vaccinated. This is absurd in modern America. The un-vaccinated are a public health hazard. As long as they are few, they benefit from the herd immunity of folks who have been vaccinated. But when they grow in number, spurred by religion, superstitions, unfounded fears and a wrongheaded notion that vaccines are unnecessary inventions in nature's design for humans, then we are all in trouble. As the clamorous voices of the vaccine dissidents reach a certain threshold, herd immunity will fall, diseases we have conquered will reappear, perhaps in more lethal forms, and we will not be able to put them back in Pandora's box.

Over centuries of human history, entire hordes of people have been wiped out by small pox and other pestilences. Those who oppose vaccinations do so under cover of modern medicine, complacent because they have never smelled, seen or touched the death march of these contagions. For every autism case dubiously linked to vaccines, human exterminations from pre-vaccination eras stand in chilling and stark contrast.

Governments responsible for the general welfare of their citizens do not have a choice. Childhood vaccinations should be mandated in all the states. This mandate should be enforced, except for those allergic to vaccine components, by keeping those not vaccinated out of the public sphere until they get vaccinated. Hospitals, schools, the military, government and corporate offices are all places where the seeds of epidemics can be sown by susceptible individuals who stubbornly refuse to be vaccinated. The debate must shift from the sinister nature of big drug companies and their profits to the sinister nature of the diseases we need to conquer. Religious and other objections should be categorically rejected. Science, not emotion, should keep us on the pathway of refining the vaccines we already have and inventing new ones for diseases that continue to kill us in great numbers.

It is a lack of these policies and an absence of logic in our conversations about this subject that has brought back whooping cough, diphtheria, measles and even tetanus in this country and others across the globe.

Usha Nellore, Bel Air

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