Lack of Vaccination Carries Risk continued...
Statistically, a child in the U.S. has an extremely low risk of catching measles; fewer than 100 cases are reported annually in this country, according to the CDC. But outbreaks of the highly contagious viral illness have occurred among unvaccinated kids. In 2008, an unvaccinated 7-year-old boy who had visited Switzerland came home to San Diego and developed measles. An additional 11 unvaccinated children, aged 10 months to 9 years, became infected, including four who had been in the pediatrician’s office at the same time as the 7-year-old boy. In some cases, measles can lead to severe complications, including encephalitis, pneumonia, and death.
Public health experts consider such risks unacceptable, but Sears sees it differently. Most of the children who caught measles were unvaccinated because their parents chose to accept that risk, he says. “I tell these parents that it’s really not much risk to leave your baby or toddler unvaccinated against measles, as long as the majority of families are vaccinating around you. Now, I’m not telling parents that they should do this. I’m just telling them that they need to understand what the risks might or might not be, and for that particular disease, the risk is very, very low for families who delay the vaccine.”
Trying to protect one’s unvaccinated children by surrounding them with vaccinated children is a concept called “herd immunity.”
But herd immunity isn’t foolproof, experts say, because diseases can be “imported.” Fisher cites a 2007 case in which a boy, aged 12, visited from Japan to play in a Little League series. He was infected with measles, and investigators linked his illness to six later measles cases in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas.
Sears says that leaving children unvaccinated does increase risk. “Honestly, the best thing is to go ahead and vaccinate so that you don’t take those kinds of risks,” he says. “But I’m simply willing to understand and work with the parents who would rather take the disease risk of measles than the vaccine risk.”
Personal Choice, Social Responsibility
The debate over Sears’ book highlights the conflicts between individual choice and social responsibility.
“Clearly, keeping vaccination rates high and following the regular vaccination schedule is in our nation’s best interest from a public health standpoint,” Sears says. “I’m trying to help… individual families understand how to make vaccine decisions for their own child. Parents really don’t look at the public health’s best interests when they’re making vaccine choices. I find that they’re inherently more selfish about their own children’s health. I don’t mean ‘selfish’ in a negative way; they’re just naturally thinking about their own child much more than what might be in the best interest of our entire nation. To me, that seems like a natural way for any parent to approach the decision.”