Measles, Part 1

Measles has arrived in western Massachuestts. I live and work in this educated, liberal community with high rates of vaccine refusal. I used to teach a class on childhood immunizations for new and expecting parents, so I’ve been asked to write out my thoughts on this recent outbreak and on the MMR vaccine specifically.

Vaccines have become a highly sensitive and controversial topic—at least in public discourse. The scientific and medical communities are pretty much on the same page. Nevertheless, both the pro- and anti-vax camps continue angry finger pointing and character assassination.  Both sides are so dug in that no one is listening; it is frustrating and counterproductive.

Yes, I said both sides. This is a potentially controversial statement. The media tends to represent two sides of scientific arguments, even when the scientific community is generally in agreement. This representation creates a false sense of ongoing debate where there really isn’t one (at least not much).  The scientific evidence that we have supports the safety and efficacy of the vaccine program. The decline of the national vaccine program would be a terrible thing for all of us. Herd immunity really does protect us.

However, there is a growing population of parents who are skeptical about vaccinating their children.   These are well-intentioned people who are trying to make the best decisions for their children. Belittling them and calling them names does nothing to increase the rates of vaccination. And while the most radical vaccine opponents fueling this fire often misrepresent the evidence, it would be disingenuous to assert that the safety data on vaccines is complete.  The evidence is not as complete as it should be.  I have wondered whether self-censorship among researchers regarding adverse reactions is hindering vaccine safety research. The few who report findings of unexpected adverse reactions are maligned from all sides.   Of course, it could be that the vast majority of scientists think this question has been answered.  But still, there is a vehemence in these attacks that I have not come across in other fields.

In the periodic workshops I’ve offered on this topic, I’ve found the most effective way to reach parents who are concerned about vaccine safety is to acknowledge that, like any medical intervention, vaccines have risks. I believe that authentic inquiry and honest discussion do more for the public’s trust than across-the-board denial. And that is what I hope to support with this series of four posts. In the next three, I will give some background on the measles virus, discuss the safety profile of the measles vaccine, and offer some other useful information for parents on the fence.

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