A funny thing’s been happening to public health over the last fifteen years. Vaccinations against serious diseases, like measles and whooping cough, had been a cornerstone of health policy in the U.S. and around the world since Jonas Salk developed a wildly-successful vaccine against polio in 1952. This innovation almost wiped out a disease which condemned thousands of children to the unimaginable suffering of living immobilized in an iron lung. From the 1960s on, no one thought to challenge the public health vaccine schedule or balked at providing schools with a record of their children's immunizations.
But all that started to change in 1998, when now-disgraced British physician Andrew Wakefield published research that purported to show a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism.
Though that research was later retracted, Wakefield’s paper caused a surge of tabloid-driven hysteria about the safety of vaccines that has lasted for more than a decade. Lurid headlines like “Jab as deadly as the cancer” have terrified the public and, in some cases, have led to a sizable decrease in vaccination rates against deadly diseases.
This, in turn, led to a resurgence of illnesses once thought to be under control. In England, for instance, an upswing of measles in some areas has been detected. And this trend is not just playing out on that side of the pond.
Stateside, the anti-vaccination movement has been gaining momentum. The public face of this in the U.S. was personified by then-celebrity couple Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy who launched into a vicious tirade against the medical establishment, accusing them of being in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies pushing dangerous vaccines to line their pockets at the expense of children’s health. The anti-vaccine power couple appeared with health officials on CNN in 2009.
Although the collusion between Big Pharma and the medical establishment is something to be concerned about, that worry pales in comparison to the dangers un-vaccinated children face. Due to the anti-jab hysteria wrought by campaigners like Carrey and McCarthy, the numbers of kids who face the world without vaccines to bolster their immune systems continues to grow.
In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, journalists obtained vaccination records from elementary schools across Los Angeles County. Their findings were shocking. Vaccination rates in posh neighborhoods L.A. like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have plummeted. Some preschools in this region have immunization rates that match developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.
This decrease has been matched by a surge in diseases like whooping cough. In 1995, only six Americans died of this disease while, in California this year alone, more than 1,300 have been diagnosed. Cases of measles are also at a 20-year high.
This of course brings up the prickly issue of parents’ rights. Should the government be allowed to tell parents they must inoculate their children before they are allowed to attend school? According to many, like those wealthy Californians, the state has no right to demand what they put in their kids’ bodies, regardless of that decision's implications for the greater good. But they may start to change their tune when dormant deadly diseases come calling.