By Brendan Luke
Measles, a highly contagious respiratory disease that manifests itself in a cough, conjunctivitis, a sore throat and a characteristic full-body rash accompanied by dangerously high fevers, is resurfacing as a threat and has many health officials and parents worried. In December 2014, an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in California sparked fear and outrage among concerned parents.
The rare viral disease, which is especially dangerous in children under five years old, has been vaccinated for since 1968 with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. In this past month alone, however, 102 people from 14 states have been reported as having contracted the disease, most of the cases stemming from the Disneyland outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Why did the outbreak occur? And why is it continuing to spread so rapidly if it is a disease that was declared eliminated by the CDC in 2000? A large part of the reason is that many adults — and by extension, their children — are choosing not to receive the MMR vaccine.
Parents’ mistrust of vaccines may stem from their mistrust in the companies that manufacture them. In 2009, Pfizer paid $2.3 billion in the largest healthcare fraud settlement in U.S. history for making false claims about the safety and use of several of its drugs. In 2010, GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company and major manufacturer of vaccines for the CDC, paid $3 billion in the largest drug fraud scandal in U.S. history, in large part for failing to report safety data about one of its own drugs.
The implication that doctors take part in outright bribery and receive payment in “kickbacks” — a practice known as off-label marketing — further complicates the issue, damaging the public’s trust in healthcare professionals who promote vaccination. The fact that these cases are not especially unique has caused irreparable harm to the public image of pharmaceutical companies, many of which were admittedly already mistrusted because of their sheer size and profit goals.
Doctors have contributed to the public’s conception of vaccination. The story of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a researcher who published a paper in 1998 with data that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, is a prime example. Wakefield’s research, which sparked waves of outrage and concern among conscientious parents, caused many adults to opt out of the MMR vaccination program for themselves and their children. The paper was so controversial that it caused many to stop receiving most, if not all, vaccines, including the vaccine for the common flu.
Wakefield’s data was discredited and the paper was discovered to be largely falsified. He lost his license to practice medicine, but to this day many parents elect not to vaccinate their children.
The mistrust of pharmaceutical companies, doctors and health officials is well grounded in an unfortunate history of deception and fraud. However, measles is real, and its historical repercussions on the lives of our children and our nation cannot be disregarded. Those who are concerned about the potential risks of the MMR vaccine, and any vaccine, should strive to educate themselves about the risks and benefits before making a decision that can put the lives of themselves, their children and their neighbors at risk.
As with any medical treatment, there are hazards and benefits associated with the MMR vaccine. Its contents and chemical additives are available to the public, as is extensive research on its safety and efficacy, and the safety of its components.
People have the liberty to opt out of vaccination programs. Due to the potential repercussions on our nation and the lives of our children, however, the decision not to receive vaccinations should not be made without extensive research. If parents decide to not receive a vaccine, appropriate steps to ensure the safety of their friends, family and children should be taken.