It wasn’t long ago that children were routinely struck down by debilitating and often deadly diseases such as polio, measles and rubella.
According to the Immunization Action Coalition, an epidemic that swept the nation in 1964 resulted in 12.5 million cases of rubella infection, an estimated 20,000 newborns with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), and excess fetal and neo-natal deaths that numbered in the thousands. The worst recorded polio epidemic in U.S. history occurred in 1952 with 57,628 reported cases.
Today the closest you may get to seeing someone with polio would be viewing photographs of wheelchair-bound Franklin Delano Roosevelt while visiting the FDR Library in Hyde Park. Why? Because vaccines have all but eradicated such diseases in the U.S.
In the beginning
The first polio vaccine was licensed in 1955. In 1988, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution to eradicate polio by the year 2000. They haven’t quite yet achieved their global goal, but in 1994 the entire Western Hemisphere was certified as "polio-free" by the International Commission for the Certification of Polio Eradication.
In 1966 the Center for Disease Control announced the first measles eradication campaign and within two years, measles incidence had decreased by more than 90% compared with pre-vaccine-era levels. In 1966 The World Health Assembly called for global smallpox eradication in 1966 and by 1980, The World Health Assembly certified the world free of naturally occurring smallpox. Today, smallpox vaccinations are no longer necessary.
Vaccines have been called the greatest achievement in medical history and have proved so integral to the control and eradication of infectious diseases that many are now state mandated.
“Vaccines for school-age children are required to protect against a number of diseases that were transmitted prior to the development of immunizations,” says Dr. Lori Hugg, a pediatrician with Crystal Run Healthcare in Newburgh.
Since infectious diseases are spread in close confines, schools are prime breeding grounds. To keep all children protected, states mandate an immunization schedule for every child who attends school. These include required vaccinations against hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, and, as of September 2016, meningococcal disease.
The immunization schedule itemizes what vaccines and boosters must be taken at what age and at what dosage (as determined by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices), affecting any child who attends a facility that groups children together: day care, nursery school, kindergarten, elementary, middle or high school. Children will not be permitted to attend school without proof that he or she has received the required immunizations unless parents claim exemption for religious beliefs or medical contraindications – such as severe allergies to vaccine ingredients – exist.
At the heart of every parent is the desire to protect their child, which vaccines are designed to do by preventing infectious diseases. But as more and more vaccines are mandated, some parents are pushing back just as hard, leery of injecting a constant barrage of toxic substances into the bodies of their healthy school-age children.
Monica Meyle, a Kingston parent of two, decided to homeschool her children.
"As a family, we have always been very careful about what goes into our bodies...from food selections to pharmaceuticals,” Meyle says. "Just as it is the right of every citizen to know the ingredients before purchasing and consuming a food product; likewise, each one should make an educated decision when it comes to substances injected directly into the bloodstream. It is the parents' responsibility to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their child will not be harmed or adversely affected."
A vaccine controversy was stirred by a study by a British gastroenterologist in the 1990’s that suggested a possible link between the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine and autism. The study, which only involved 12 children, was later retracted and further studies examining hundreds of thousands of children have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
There is some speculation that the autism-vaccine connection is just coincidence and that the age-specific timeline for immunizations and the age for recognizing that a child has autism might simply coincide.
But as parents refuse immunization, the overall percentage of the vaccinated population drops, which opens the door for infectious diseases to re-establish themselves.
“Although many of these diseases were effectively eradicated in the United States, outbreaks of conditions such as measles and pertussis have occurred more recently in areas with lower immunization rates,” says Dr. Hugg.
Remember, infectious diseases all of these diseases (except smallpox) still exist and some are only a plane ride away – which means they can potentially become widespread.
In order for a vaccine to be effective, 80% or more of the population must have received it. This allows for a margin of parents who need to be exempted on religious or medical grounds, or who have already-compromised immune systems. All other parents must supply proof that they have complied with the immunization schedule in order to send their child to school in New York.
Many vaccines are given as injections into the muscle or below the skin. Redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, rash and joint pain may occur.
“I’ve never encountered any ill effects from vaccines in my patients,” says Dr. Hugg. “Serious side effects are rare and should be discussed prior to vaccine administration. They may include allergic reactions and neurological issues like severe brain reactions. But for most children, the risks of side effects are greatly outweighed by the potential benefits of vaccines.”
Linda Freeman is a freelance writer in Marlboro.