Recently, the Samoa measles epidemic has been in the news, with at least 60 individuals who have died as the result of the virus (as of 4 December 2019). The vast majority of these deaths could have been prevented with the extremely safe measles vaccine.
Of course, those of us on the science side are appalled what is going on there. Children (and some adults) have died from a disease that should have been exiled to history books as a result of vaccines.
Once this Samoa measles epidemic hit the news, the vaccine deniers came out of their putrid swamps to use the epidemic as some sort of condemnation of vaccines. Their twisted logic would be the envy of pretzel manufacturers worldwide.
An anti-vaccine doctor from Oklahoma, Dr. Jim Meehan, wrote an online post about why he would no longer vaccinate his children. It’s pretty clear that his post is not so much a discussion of his own children (most of whom are adults) as an attempt to deter other parents from protecting their children from preventable diseases. His post is basically a set of claims trying to convince parents that vaccinating is very dangerous.
His claims are nothing new – they are strictly out of the anti-vaccine playbook. But the post has received some attention in the anti-vaccine world and was shared several thousand times, likely because many people treat an MD as an authority on the subject. So I decided to take a few minutes to explain why his claims are not good reasons to reject expert opinion and not protect children from disease.
Dr. Meehan’s claims fall into several categories (which will be discussed individually below):
The diseases we vaccinate against are not dangerous, and it’s okay, even good, to encounter them naturally.
Vaccines have toxic ingredients.
Vaccines are dangerous to children.
The science behind vaccines is corrupt because the pharmaceutical industry controls it and then corrupts it.
We should listen to him because he is a doctor and knows what he is talking about.
Recently, I wrote an article about measles immune suppression, a serious complication of the disease, and one of the great reasons to get the measles vaccine. According to two peer-reviewed articles, one published in the prestigious journal Science and the other article in a sister journal Science Immunology, researchers described that measles infections destroyed some immune memory cells, causing the individual to lose protection to some diseases.
It’s been well known for years that measles damages the immune system, one of the many dangerous complications of the disease. That’s one of the many reasons why we are so strongly in favor of the MMR vaccine and so strongly against measles outbreaks.
Of course, the anti-vaccine zealots will continue to believe that “natural” measles infections will confer some super-immunity to their children. Many deliberately try to infect their kids with the disease.
A recent recurrent claim in the anti-vaccine group is that the MMR vaccine puts babies at higher risk than they were before vaccines when measles outbreaks were large and frequent. The claim is that because vaccinated mothers transfer less immunity than mothers who had wild measles to their babies, babies are less well protected, and hence more at risk. This matters, because rates of complications are higher in babies than others.
The anti-vaccine claim is incorrect and deeply morally problematic. It’s incorrect because the difference in immunity between vaccinated mothers and mothers who had measles is real, but not huge; and because even if babies of vaccinated mothers are more likely to get measles if exposed, babies were much more likely to be exposed before vaccines.
He wrote in his Dr. Bob’s Daily and published on his Facebook page that measles is only rarely fatal in developed countries and that serious complications are rare. (In the likely event that Dr. Sears decides to delete his misleading comments, it’s archived here permanently.)
And they were irresponsible. In a way that can put people – including children, including his patients – at serious risk. This is not the first time Dr. Bob Sears has made inaccurate claims about a vaccine-preventable disease, but on the background of the current measles outbreaks, the risk from his behavior is more imminent and more obvious. It is appropriate to react. Continue reading “Dr. Robert Sears vaccine info misleads parents about measles”
“Natural immunity” is the trope du jour of the anti-vaccine world – they want us to believe that contracting a dangerous pathogen is somehow better than preventing that disease with a vaccine. Their pseudoscientific beliefs rely upon logical fallacies, a complete misunderstanding of how the immune system works, and a healthy dose of bad math.
In other words, the same old same old from our anti-vaxxer “friends.”
The purpose of this article is to discuss why natural immunity is a bogus concept when it comes to vaccines. I need to make one warning upfront – immunology is complicated and cannot be described in 1000 words or less. So, I’m going to do a lot of linking to good articles that describe various things about the immune system.
If the German parliament approves the bill, which is almost certain, parents will have to provide evidence that their child has received the measles vaccine before they are enrolled in school. If the parents have failed to do so, they will be subject to fines up to €2,500 ($2,800).
If this bill is passed, Germany will join France and Italy as the other European countries with a mandatory vaccines law. Many other European countries have such high vaccination rates that they have little need for mandatory measles vaccine, but I’m sure they are watching carefully considering the rather large measles epidemic that has hit Europe over the past year.
The USA does not have a Federal mandatory measles vaccine law, but all 50 states and the District of Columbia require children to be fully vaccinated (according to the CDC immunization schedule, which includes the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella) before entering school. However, many states allow so-called “personal belief exemptions,” which allow parents to easily skip some or all vaccines based on whatever they want.
As a result, some states have either implemented or are considering strict laws to make certain that children entering school are fully vaccinated. California, Maine, New York, Washington, Mississippi, and West Virginia have mostly eliminated personal belief exemptions, only allowing medical exemptions, where the child has some contraindications to some vaccines. The German law also does the same – it only allows medical exemptions.
The German state of Brandenburg recently passed its own law instituting a mandatory measles vaccine for children entering kindergarten. The state government was concerned about Brandenburg’s relatively low measles vaccination rate, 72.5%, far below the 92.9% rate for the whole country.
This bears repeating. The measles is easily prevented by a vaccine.
A quick measles primer
Measles (also called rubeola, not to be confused with rubella, or German measles, which despite its name, isn’t the issue in Germany) is a respiratory disease caused by the measles virus. Measles virus normally grows in the cells that line the back of the throat and lungs.
The virus is spread through respiration (contact with fluids from an infected person’s nose and mouth, either directly or through aerosol transmission), and is highly contagious — 90% of people without immunity sharing living space with an infected person will catch it.
There are no specific treatments for the disease. There are no miracle preventions.
The oft-repeated, and highly inaccurate, claim that vitamin A supplements can cure or prevent measles completely misses the mark. It’s important to supplement with vitamin A to prevent blindness as a result of measles, but it doesn’t reduce mortality or prevent some neurological issues. Moreover, it is most useful in children with vitamin A deficiency, not exactly a major issue in well-fed children in developed countries.
And sadly, for every 1,000 children who get measles, 1 or 2 will die from it.
These measles complications are more common among children under 5 years of age and adults over 20 years old (usually those with lapsed immunity).
Even in previously healthy children, measles can be a serious illness requiring hospitalization. Measles also can make a pregnant woman have a miscarriage, give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby.
There is only one good way to prevent measles unless you want your child to live in a hermetically-sealed bubble forever – get the MMR vaccine.
Serious complications to measles can be as high as 3 out of every 10 children who get the disease. Serious complications from the MMR vaccine is approximately 1 out of every 1 million vaccine doses. The benefit to risk calculation is way over on the side of vaccines.
Measles is a dangerous, highly contagious disease that can permanently harm or even kill healthy children. It is not a disease that should be ignored.
The German mandatory measles vaccine law is what needs to be done to protect the children of the country. It is great that Germany is taking this step – I’m sure other countries will do the same.
Vaccines save lives. And the German government knows this and is moving to make sure every child is protected.