Editor's note: This column has been corrected to fix a misstatement about how the vaccine bill died.
Recently, I attended a town hall in Bend, organized by state Sen. Tim Knopp (Senate District 27) where the issue of childhood vaccines came up as the senator explained his opposition to House Bill 3063, which would have ended exemptions for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children based on religious or personal philosophical beliefs. One supporter of Knopp’s position commented that “there is no evidence that vaccines have ever proven effective.” A collective “argh” of frustration and surprise rang out from those of us who could not believe such an ill-informed opinion could exist in our community.
The current movement to refuse vaccinations against communicable diseases is a troubling denial of science and the facts and represents a regression away from modern medicine. Global vaccination programs against infectious diseases have been the single most effective public health measure of all time, preventing 2 million to 3 million deaths each year according to the World Health Organization. Over 80% of children worldwide are immunized against diseases such as polio, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, pertussis, pneumonia and rotavirus diarrhea. In 1980, the WHO declared that the deadly smallpox virus had been eliminated from the human population. As a result, children no long require the smallpox vaccine. During the 20th century alone, smallpox was responsible for 300 million to 500 million deaths. Over 80% of infected children died.
Those of us who are old enough remember as children the dread of the crippling polio virus. We were afraid to swim in public places for fear we would end up in iron lung machines, gasping for air. The Salk/Sabin vaccine saved us from that terrifying fate. Now there are fewer than 1,000 polio cases per year worldwide, down from 350,000 in 1988.
Despite this robust epidemiological data, vaccine hesitancy has grown over the past 20 years such that there have been recent sizable outbreaks of measles linked to undervaccinated communities around the globe but also in the U.S. and here in Oregon. The anti-vaccination movement has grown due to disinformation appearing in the social media. Unscientific and unfounded conspiracy theories claim that immunization such as the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) cause autism, diabetes, attention deficit disorder and other maladies. Other misconceptions falsely charge that vaccinations compromise immunity rather than boost it. Some conspiracy theorists believe vaccination policies are contrived by pharmaceutical industry as tricks to increase their profits and that companies underreport adverse reactions in order to deceive us into thinking that immunizations are safe.
As a result of this disinformation, the WHO listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the ten greatest threats to global health for 2019. YouTube videos, blogs and other nonacademic social media sources fuel the anti-vax movement despite efforts of reputable scientists to provide fact-based evidence to the contrary.
At issue is the inability of society to rid itself of serious preventable disease. Moreover, it erodes the trust people must maintain in scientists and healthcare providers who make heroic efforts to promote the general welfare of society. Denying the value of immunizations in preventing pandemics or devaluating the science of climate change represent tangible threats to humanity.
On the local level, those who do not immunize their children in the name of personal or religious freedom, deny the freedom of health for the rest of us and put our precious children and others at serious risk. Immunocompromised people such as cancer patients can die if exposed, and infants who are too young to be vaccinated are a risk of contracting infectious diseases from the unvaccinated segment of the “herd.” We live in a nation of laws enacted for the benefit of society. We wear seat belts and obey traffic lights. While these measures limit our personal freedoms, they are in place because their benefits far out-weighs the risks. Such is the case of vaccinations and their unquestioned public benefit.
HB 3063 died last June. It passed the Oregon House of Representatives by a 35-25 margin with Republican Cheri Helt (House District 54) of Bend voting in favor of the legislation and representative Jack Zika (House District 53) of Redmond voting against. The bill died in the Senate as part of a deal to urge the return of Republican senators in the first Republican walkout of the 2019 session.