Thirty-five European children have died from measles in the past 12 months in what the World Health Organization calls an "unacceptable" tragedy. The deaths could have been prevented by a vaccine. A measles outbreak in Minnesota sent nearly two dozen people to the hospital. Still, some parents in developed countries continue to believe false reports that the measles vaccine causes autism. And now a number of parents are refusing to get their children vaccinated for other diseases as well.
A vaccine ended small pox. Another vaccine is close to ending polio. Vaccines prevent the flu, hepatitis, liver cancer, cervical, oral and penile cancers and a dozen or so other diseases. They have saved countless lives and prevented enormous suffering. Scientists are now working on vaccines for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Dr. Flavia Bustreo is an outspoken advocate for immunizations at the World Health Organization.
"Immunization and vaccines are the most powerful public health tools that we have," said Bustreo.
One of the most effective vaccines available, to prevent measles, mumps and rubella, is meeting resistance from many parents because of a debunked study that linked the vaccine to autism. Yet some parents oppose all vaccines. Gabriella Cashman is hoping to start a family soon, and says she is not going to give any vaccines to her children.
“We don’t want anybody to force anything on our children. As parents, it’s our decision whether or not we want to vaccinate," she said.
In the U.S., the issue goes beyond autism. It's become a parents' rights issue. Dr. Peter Hotez is an immunologist who develops vaccines for tropical diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“In the state of Texas, we now have 50,000 kids whose parents are opting them out of getting vaccinated,” he said.
Dr. Hope Scott says all pediatricians strongly favor vaccines. The topic is very personal to her, because she lost a daughter to pneumococcal meningitis five years before a vaccine became available.
"I’d give a million dollars and my right arm to have the opportunity to vaccinate my child and save her life. ... And I didn’t have that opportunity. And I have a hard time understanding why people choose to not protect their children," she said.
Doctors and other health professionals are sometimes at a loss when it comes to convincing parents that vaccines will keep their children healthy. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci oversees programs to immunize and care for people around the globe who suffer from infectious diseases. His institute funds the research and development of vaccines for AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.
"I think the approach toward people who are anti-vaccinating is to respect their opinion and don’t denigrate them and don’t criticize them, but try to explain to them on the basis of solid evidence why the risk benefit of vaccines clearly, clearly — very, very heavily — leans toward vaccinating your children," he said.
In a column written for The Seattle Times newspaper, autism expert Annette Este said health professionals need to "urgently find a way out of our impasse and rediscover the connections between" those who oppose immunizations and the medical community.
The American Medical Association has adopted a policy to continue efforts to promote public understanding and confidence in the safety of vaccines. Some European countries are now making vaccines against measles and other diseases mandatory. Meanwhile, the measles outbreak in Minnesota is not over. A 19-year-old whose parents opposed vaccinations is Minnesota's 79th case.