There has in recent years been something of a backlash against vaccinations. Or rather, more of a backlash against them than usual. For as long as the practise has been around, there have been various critics about it, whether justified or not. George Washington faced ridicule when he chose to have the soldiers fighting under his command inoculated against smallpox, yet sure enough his foresight and the results spoke for themselves. While Native Americans and escaped slaves fighting for the British were often crippled by the virus, the Continental soldiers were more or less immune.
Today, largely because of a questionable study and some level of unnecessary concern about the nature of vaccination, parents are losing Washington’s victory in the war against viral epidemic. Because of this, preventable and deadly diseases are once again threatening our children, with a recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland underlining the need for further vaccinations. What isn’t helping is the current line of argument often employed by anti-vaccination parents:
If your children are supposedly immune to diseases, why should my unvaccinated children be a risk to them?
This question is unfortunate because it fails to understand certain basic elements of vaccinations are, how they work, and what makes them effective protection against viruses.
Only the Foolish Deal in Absolutes
Despite popular belief in both camps of the vaccination debate, vaccinating your children does not always make them immune to catching a disease any more than locking your front door will make you immune to a break in. Vaccinations are usually only effective between 85% and 95% of the time. Some, for a variety of reasons, simply don’t take to the treatment and develop any immunity to the disease. As such, if an epidemic springs up, there may still be a risk of infection amongst those who were fully vaccinated, yet didn’t take to it.
Let’s illustrate this with an analogy. 1000 people jump out of a large aeroplane that had started to crash, presumably because it was carrying so many people. By chance, it was also carrying 1000 parachutes, however five passengers choose not to take one, citing anything from “parachutes can give you whiplash” to “God will decide whether I survive or not”. Meanwhile, seven parachutes do not open. The people using them, and the people who refused a parachute, plummet to the Earth. Of those twelve, seven were using a parachute – around 58%.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that parachutes don’t work and the same can be said for vaccinations. Nothing made by man is guaranteed to work 100% of the time. Likewise, not everyone can be vaccinated in the first place, such as young children, people with immunity problems, and those who are already too ill for the procedure. So what makes vaccinations so effective at killing diseases? After all, people claim that smallpox and polio were eradicated by it. If vaccinations don’t always work, how could that have happened?
You’ve probably heard of the term “herd immunity”. It’s thrown around by pro-vaccinators a fair amount, but it’s not always explained what is meant by that. Fortunately, the process is very simple.
Simply put, herd immunity arises when a large percentage of a given population have developed an immunity to a certain bacteria or virus. The exact percentage needed varies, depending on the resilience and virility of the disease in question. With so many potential hosts now immune to them, the theory goes that viruses and bacteria cannot spread as easily as they could do with lower rates of immunisation.
The result is that they often die out before they can gain sufficient coverage to become an epidemic. In this way, even people who have not received vaccination or did not acquire immunity are still protected from viruses. The disease has far less opportunity to get to them than it otherwise would.
Naturally, the fewer people who are vaccinated, the less effective herd immunity becomes. As more viable hosts become available, the longer the disease can survive and the more it can propagate. This places a greater number of people at risk and is how diseases that have previously been on the decline, such as whooping cough or measles, have started to make a comeback amongst the population.
Unvaccinated Children DO Pose a Risk
Whenever an unvaccinated child is infected with a disease, even if they manage to fight it off themselves, they can pass it on to other children. As we’ve established, vaccinations are not 100% effective. Sometimes, a child who’s been vaccinated will still fall ill. There’s no way of knowing whether the vaccination has been effective until that happens. There’s also the risk they pose to those children who are yet too young to receive a vaccination, who will almost certainly be in critical condition if they catch a particularly virulent strain of a disease. By extension, they also pose a risk to any adults who have not had their boosters, or who were unable to attain vaccinations themselves.
Wherever possible, you should encourage other parents to vaccinate their children if they’ve not already done so. This simple act alone can stop preventable diseases from gaining a foothold in your schools and communities and reverse the current rise in their outbreaks.
About the author:
Christian Mills writes on various topics affecting the health of children and adults, encouraging proper education and care including inoculation and other services that can be provided through such organizations as Nite Lite Pediatrics.