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What Would Actually Happen If Anti-Vaxxing Became More Widespread?

It’s a terrifying thought

Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old student who received numerous vaccinations against his mother's wishes, testifies before a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the benefits of vaccinations in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, USA, 05 March 2019.

Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old who went against his parents' wishes to get vaccinated, testified in Congress today.

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutte

On Tuesday, the Senate Health Committee heard testimony regarding the outbreak of measles and the importance of vaccines in preventing widespread infections. It also featured the compelling account of Ethan Lindenberger, a teenager who got vaccinated at 18 against his parents’ wishes, as well as some, questionable remarks from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a doctor, who said that parents should not be required to vaccinate their children and that “it is wrong to say that there are no risks to vaccines.” Some parents believe that there is a connection between vaccinations and autism; but as has been repeatedly shown, this connection simply does not exist.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is still fairly rampant on social media, where anti-vaxx propaganda is continuing to spread, despite platforms like Facebook insisting they are cracking down on inaccurate or misleading information. The end result has been an increase in parents opting out of vaccines for non-medical reasons in 12 states where it is legal to do so, according to a 2018 study in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.

Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) has listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the most pressing public health threats of 2019, citing a 30-percent global increase in the worldwide measles rate as partial evidence of the frightening trend. The United States has seen a 559-percent increase in measles outbreaks, and there have been reports of measles outbreaks in states like Washington, California and Oregon. The fact that celebrities like Kat Von D have reportedly jumped on the anti-vaxxing bandwagon doesn’t really help matters, either.

All of this begs the question: what would actually happen if anti-vaxxing became more widespread, and people stopped vaccinating their kids?

Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when a large number of people in a given community get vaccinated against a specific disease, the vaccines provide herd immunity, or community immunity. Essentially, this is the theory that because germs spread by jumping from host to host, if a large percentage of a community is vaccinated against a specific disease, that significantly slows down the spread of the disease. But the effectiveness of herd immunity is contingent on at least 95 percent of the community receiving vaccines. In fact, communities with low vaccination rates (such as Orthodox Jewish communities in Rockland County, NY, which were recently rocked by measles outbreaks) are shown to have much higher rates of infectious diseases.

Further, one need only look at infectious disease outbreaks throughout history to see what a future without vaccines would look like. Take, for instance, the outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough), a vaccine-preventable disease, in the United Kingdom in the 1970s: following media reports that the DTP (diptheria-tetanus-percussis) vaccine was linked to brain damage, the vaccination rate plummeted from 80 percent to 33 percent between 1974 and 1977. As a result, 102,500 cases of whooping cough were reported in the region in 1979, as well as 36 deaths, mostly of children. (No definitive connection was ever found between the vaccine and brain damage.)

It’s also not unconceivable that massively declining vaccination rates could lead to a resurgence of infectious disease. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 15,000 Americans died of diphtheria before a vaccine was invented in 1921 — and since then, there have been only a handful of cases of the disease, with two cases reported to the CDC between 2004 and 2014.

TLDR: it is in the interest of your child’s individual health — and public health at large — to get your child vaccinated.

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