By Marian Wright Edelman
I’ve never forgotten my family’s sadness over the senseless death of my childhood neighbor little Johnny Harrington, who lived three houses down from our church parsonage in segregated Bennettsville, South Carolina. Johnny stepped on a rusted nail and died of the resulting tetanus infection because his hard-working grandmother had no doctor to advise her nor the money to pay for health care. Over the last four decades the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has fought alongside many others to champion policies and programs that work to ensure every child in America gets vaccinated against preventable diseases like tetanus, polio, and measles.
Yet in 2019 headlines like “New U.S. measles cases break 25-year-old record” are creating fear and worry, especially among parents. How can it be that we are seeing more and more outbreaks of a disease declared eliminated in the United States nearly two decades ago? The answer involves a web of linked factors: the spread of misinformation and falsehoods by a small but vocal number of vaccine opponents, gaps in vaccination coverage, and a national and global increase in outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs). The U.S. has already recorded well over 1,000 cases of measles this year—most of them occurring in children. As we explain in a new brief, this growing crisis is putting our children at risk and must be stopped.
The facts are simple: Vaccines are safe. They are highly effective. They are supported by every major American medical society and government agency and are a routine part of pediatric care. Yet the growing number of VPD outbreaks suggests more must be done to support immunization and halt the spread of serious—and potentially deadly—diseases. The bottom line is that to stop the spread of measles and other serious diseases, parents musthave access to factual information from trusted sources to combat fraudulent information spread by the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. and around the world. To ensure that parents are equipped with the facts, health care providers, educators, children’s groups, policymakers and faith leaders must be vocal advocates for vaccinations, and policies must support vaccination and limit exemptions only to those with legitimate medical reasons.
Why are vaccines so important? Vaccines save lives and protect against long-term health consequences. They reduce disability and suffering, contribute to longer life expectancy, and help lower health disparities, and they are one of the greatest successes in public health and modern medicine. From 1994 to 2016, childhood immunizations prevented an estimated 281 million child illnesses, 855,000 child deaths, and nearly $1.65 trillion in health care costs. Every dollar invested in vaccination yields $3 in direct benefits and $10 in benefits when societal costs are included. They also save money for states and localities, which shoulder the often high cost of tracking and treating those who are infected. For instance, measles costs an average of $32,000 per case.
Measles is a very good case study in the benefits of vaccines. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, measles killed approximately 400-500 American children every year. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), measles has been eliminated in all of the Americas, from Canada to Chile, although both the U.S. and Venezuela are now currently experiencing outbreaks. However, measles remains endemic elsewhere in the world, including Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. About 10 million people are infected each year and almost 110,000 die, mostly children under age five. Measles can result in severe and lifelong health consequences for those who do survive. It is also highly contagious—so much so that an unvaccinated person walking through a room up to two hours after someone with measles has left has about a 90 percent chance of getting sick. The very young face heightened risk: most infants do not get their first measles vaccine until they are about one year old, and the consequences of infection can be particularly severe in babies and young children. A third of all measles cases in the current U.S. outbreaks occurred in children younger than five, and most were children under age 18 who had not been fully vaccinated.
Yet despite all the conclusive evidence that vaccinations are safe and protect against dangerous diseases, small groups of people in the U.S. and around the world choose to forgo some or all vaccines for themselves and their children, putting their children, families and communities at risk. This trend towards vaccine hesitancy and refusal has grown globally in recent years as misinformation about the safety of vaccines and the severity of VPDs shared by members of the anti-vaccination or “anti-vax” movement on the internet and social media have sown seeds of doubt in parents around the world. But we must not allow misinformation and fear to drag a new generation of children backwards into danger.
With the start of a new school year around the corner, it’s critical for parents and guardians to make sure their children are up to date on vaccines. That’s why along with our new brief, we created a family-friendly guide for parents, families, educators and anyone else who wants to understand vaccines, how they work, why they are safe and effective and how they protect our children from preventable illness or even death. Please read and share widely. The science is clear: vaccines work. Vaccine preventable diseases are dangerous and can be deadly. Quick action must be taken on multiple fronts to slow, halt, or eliminate disease outbreaks in the U.S. and abroad. Our children’s lives depend on it.
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund, whose Leave No Child Behind’s mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.