We have had an outbreak of measles even though a vaccine had seemingly eliminated this childhood disease. A lot of people don’t have their children vaccinated, putting their offspring and other people’s babies, who are not normally vaccinated in the first year of their lives, at risk for the disease.

One outbreak has been in orthodox Jewish communities where parents cite religious beliefs for the lack of vaccinations. I do not know what these religious beliefs are, but I don’t think measles or vaccines are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Other parents claim a non-religious personal belief for the failure to vaccinate. Many of these people believe the canard that the measles vaccine causes autism.

This belief can be traced to Andrew Wakefield, then a gastroenterologist, who published a paper in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet in 1998, linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism in eight children. A dozen years later, a British medical agency found Wakefield had committed professional misconduct and revoked his medical license, and Lancet retracted his study.

Almost a dozen studies since Wakefield’s paper have examined the connection between the vaccine and autism. None found a link. The latest and largest study was of 657,461 Danish children between 1999 and 2010. It, too, found that the vaccine did not cause autism, but it noted that autism often appears at about twelve months, the time when the vaccine is first given, leading to the unwarranted conclusion that the vaccine and autism are connected.

The United States National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a no-fault system started in 1988, covers claims related to fifteen childhood vaccines and seasonal flu shots. That program’s data show that during the last dozen years, over 126 million doses of measles vaccine have been delivered, but only 284 people have lodged claims with NVICP about harm from it. A mere143 claims were found to be meritorious.

The vaccine does not cause autism, and other harms from the vaccine are exceedingly rare. On the other hand, measles itself is much more dangerous than the vaccine. Hundreds of people die from measles each year around the world. Before the vaccine in 1963, 3 to 4 million people were annually infected in the U.S. with the measles causing 400 to 500 annual deaths. About one in four who get measles are hospitalized, and one to two out of a thousand are likely to die. Why, then, do parents put their children, and other children, at risk of measles?

Part of the reason is a mistrust of government and other “official” institutions. I saw that in strange way in the recent college class I taught when the measles vaccine was discussed. A student said that it was only natural that people were leery of vaccinations and referred to Osama bin Laden and the polio vaccine. I looked up some old news articles that indicated that our CIA had used a hepatitis B vaccination campaign to help locate the al Qaeda leader by seeing if the DNA of vaccinated people in a certain compound were his relatives, and this CIA initiative had added fuel to a Pakistani movement against the polio vaccine. I did not understand this story’s relevance to the measles vaccine. I am not aware of the anti-vax people in the U.S. citing the hunt for bin Laden as a reason for not vaccinating their children, but the comment, while not entirely correct in its details, conveyed a suspicion of governments that has prevented vaccinations. On the other hand, such suspicion does not undercut the fact that the measles, polio, and hepatitis B vaccines work, and that their benefits far outweigh any harms. The real takeaway from the bin Laden story is that Pakistan is now facing a polio outbreak because parents have an irrational fear of the vaccine.

(continued July 24)

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