The last time I was at Target, picking up a prescription, the pharmacist told me that the new flu vaccine for this year was just in and asked me if I wanted to get it. A few minutes later, I left inoculated against a disease that ravaged the world a hundred years ago, killing 50 million people, about 650,000 of them in my home country of the U.S.
These days, worldwide flu deaths typically don’t climb higher than 650,000 total, and can often be much lower, according to the World Health Organization. The elderly, the very young, and those with otherwise compromised immune systems are the ones most likely to die of the flu.
But for most of us, getting an annual flu vaccine reduces our chance of getting the flu. If we do get it, our symptoms will generally be much milder than they would without the vaccine. And those of us without complicating health conditions getting vaccines makes it less likely that the immuno-compromised will get sick and die, through a process called herd immunity. Essentially, the more people who are vaccinated, the harder it is for the virus is to spread among our population, meaning everyone is safer.
This logic applies for diseases beyond the flu. Vaccines have helped us eradicate diseases that used to be a death sentence, including things like smallpox, and ones that could dramatically impact people’s lives even if they did survive, like polio. But just because those diseases are mostly gone from the U.S. doesn’t mean we can stop using the vaccines for them. They can be spread by travellers from places where those diseases are still endemic, or in some cases can spread between different species who have variations on the same disease.
Vaccines make us all safer, and let us live healthier, longer, richer lives. Yet some of the diseases they’ve helped us avoid for years are making a comeback, and it’s all because of one study published in 1998. Even though the study has since been thoroughly debunked, it claims the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine can cause autism. The study was paid for by parents trying to sue vaccine manufacturers after their children were diagnosed with autism, and was conducted without approval from an ethics board. No one has ever been able to replicate the study’s results, and the journal that originally published the paper retracted it.
But the author of that study, Andrew Wakefield, still has a host of believers who now refuse to vaccinate their children, and in the process are spreading diseases that we have barely seen in a generation. Measles had been eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. But so far this year, there have been 107 measles cases in the U.S., and the majority of people who got the disease were unvaccinated.
Some people with compromised immune systems, and very young infants, genuinely can’t be vaccinated. People who can be vaccinated and refuse to put not only themselves, but the most vulnerable people in our communities, at risk. So that’s why it’s important to spread awareness and credible information about the importance of vaccines. Doing so will help us to enjoy longer, healhier lives.