RISK: Vaccines vs. Disease

By ThinkReliability Staff

Although endemic transmission of measles has been considered “interrupted by vaccination” in the United States, a recent measles outbreak has brought to the forefront the risks of not getting vaccinated.  A member of a church in Texas, who had not received the full measles vaccination, traveled to Indonesia, an area where measles is still endemic.  The disease, which is easily spread in close contact, then infected at least 20 other members of his church, which has concerns about the risks of vaccination, especially bundled vaccinations like the MMR (measles/ mumps/ rubella) vaccine.

In recent years, people have been increasingly concerned about the risks of vaccination.  One of the main concerns with the MMR vaccine is its purported link to autism (which was first mentioned in a 1998 study that has been mostly discredited).  There are, of course, risks to vaccination for any disease.  According to the CDC, risks from the MMR vaccine include mild problems, such as fever (up to 1 person out of 6), mild rash (up to 1 person out of 20) and very rare severe problems, such as allergic reactions (which occur in less than 1 out of a million doses).

However, as the CDC notes “The risk of the MMR vaccine causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small.  Getting the MMR vaccine is much safer than getting measles, mumps or rubella.”  This brings us to the other side of the equation.  People who do not get vaccinated for these diseases face the risks of getting the disease.  According to Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “There are only two ways you can develop specific immunity, either be infected by the natural virus or be immunized.  A choice not to get a vaccine is not a risk-free choice, It’s a choice to take a different and more serious risk.”

Because transmission of measles had been considered effectively stopped in the US, not vaccinating may have seemed like a minor risk.  After all, there are some people who cannot receive the vaccine.  This includes young children, pregnant women, and those who may be suffering from other health concerns.  These people have generally been protected by “herd immunity”.   This refers to the unlikelihood of getting measles when a very high percentage of the population is vaccinated against it.

However, in recent years, the number of people choosing not to get vaccinated has been increasing.  Sometimes these people are clustered geographically, such as within a church that has expressed its concerns about vaccinations (as in the recent outbreak in Texas).  When unvaccinated persons travel to an area that has not made as much progress towards eradicating disease, the likelihood of disease spreading is much higher.

This is true for other diseases as well.  The Texas Department of State Health Services has recently released a health alert regarding vaccination against pertussis (whooping cough) after more than 2,000 cases this year, including two deaths of infants too young to be vaccinated..  Says Dr. Lisa Cornelius, the Department’s infectious diseases medical officer, “This is extremely concerning.  If cases continue to be diagnosed at the current rate, we will see the most Texas cases since the 1950s.”

Although the potential risk of a vaccine may seem frightening, it is important to ensure that everyone in your family is fully vaccinated.  Not only will this provide the best protection for each of you, it will also provide protection to those members of your community who cannot be vaccinated, and limit the spread of these diseases.  Some communities are experiencing this the hard way. The Texas church involved in the outbreak has begun offering vaccination clinics for its members to attempt and stop the outbreak and protect against another one.

You can view the Outline and Cause Map discussing this issue by clicking “Download PDF” above.