Why Such An Epidemic of Vaccine Fear?

As a family and community medicine doctor using evidence-based medicine, I am a firm believer in vaccines. They have saved tens of millions of people, mostly children, from debility and death from once-common scourges such as polio, smallpox, rubella, measles and many others. And there is still a long way to go; just here in China are 30 million people with chronic hepatitis B virus. This causes long-term issues with liver cirrhosis and cancer, and millions of Chinese will needlessly suffer and die because of a lack of the vaccine.

And yet many countries are now encountering a rising wave of anti-vaccine sentiment which threatens to turn back the clock 100 years. Already, we are seeing a resurgence in some anti-vaccine neighborhoods of previously defeated diseases such as h. flu meningitis, pertussis and measles. And already, children are dying needlessly in those areas. Why is this happening? Why are parents choosing not to vaccinate given the overwhelming scientific evidence and medical consensus that vaccines’ benefits far outweigh the risks?

This is a big and complicated issue, and Wired magazine does an outstanding job in their new issue with a series of articles called An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All. It’s a terrific review of the series of events that led to this moment, and I encourage all to read it. They also have a good follow up piece, how to win an argument about vaccines. Here’s just one snippet of many sobering facts:

Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality.

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