Op-Ed: Combating the viral spread of vaccine misinformation
The following op-ed by Karin Leuthy appeared in the Village Soup on April 11, 2019..
In response to CDC reports that Maine’s pertussis rate is the worst in the nation and that several outbreaks have been reported here this year, our Legislature proposed a bill that would eliminate non-medical vaccination exemptions for schoolchildren. It’s timely legislation. Just last week, the Maine CDC announced this double-header: a measles patient visited businesses in the greater Portland area, and Maine’s non-medical vaccination opt-out rate is now more than triple the national average.
This is concerning news at a time when measles outbreaks are spreading across 15 states. Studies show that disease outbreaks are more likely to occur in communities with high numbers of unvaccinated people. That means that children in schools with low vaccination rates – like Cushing Community School at 79 percent and Ashwood Waldorf School at a shocking 50 percent – are especially vulnerable.
Since the introduction of LD 798, a great deal of false and misleading information has been shared by those opposed to the bill, including our own State Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden. While hyperbole and politics often go hand-in-hand, spreading conspiracy theories and junk science about a public health issue can be dangerous and even deadly.
Let’s correct the record on the most common themes raised by opponents of this bill:
“The Constitution protects my right to not vaccinate my child.”
No current federal or constitutional law requires states to offer religious or personal belief exemptions from school vaccine requirements. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court decisions Jacobson v. Massachusetts and Zucht v. King made clear that states have the authority to require vaccination as a condition for school entry. Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts established that religious freedom doesn’t extend to actions that endanger others. The ruling states, “The right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
“I won’t risk my child suffering a severe reaction to a vaccine.”
Let’s take a closer look at benefit versus risk. Vaccines have eradicated or brought under control seven major human diseases — smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio and measles. The World Health Organization estimates that the elimination of smallpox has saved 40 million lives, and more than 16 million people have been saved from paralysis caused by polio. That’s a significant benefit. How about the risk? For vaccines with the most reported adverse reactions, the chance of suffering a severe injury is about 1 in a million.
What risks are posed by the infectious diseases on our doorstep, measles and pertussis? About 1 in 1,000 unvaccinated children who contract measles will suffer a serious outcome, such as encephalopathy or death. Pertussis is even more deadly for babies: of those that are hospitalized with pertussis, 1 out of every 100 will die.
“Vaccines cause autism.”
There is no causal link between vaccines and autism, even among children who have an increased risk for autism. The cause of this pernicious and dangerous rumor was a single 1998 study of just 12 children. The study was later proven to be fraudulent, retracted from the journal that published it, and the author stripped of his medical license. Opposing that discredited theory are several large-scale, long-term, peer-reviewed studies that show no causal link between vaccines and autism. The largest was published this year, studying 657,461 children born in Denmark from 1999 through 2010. How many reputable studies show that there IS a causal link? Zero.
“Vaccines contain dangerous toxins like mercury and formaldehyde.”
No required childhood vaccine contains mercury. Thimerosal, an organic compound preservative containing ethyl mercury, is only used today in multi-dose vials of influenza vaccines. Ethyl mercury does not accumulate in our bodies, unlike the forms of mercury found in thermometers or fish.
Some required childhood vaccines contain formaldehyde to inactivate or detoxify viruses. Formaldehyde is already a naturally occurring substance in our bodies, and the amounts used in vaccines are not harmful.
“Herd immunity is an unproven theory.”
It’s established scientific fact that when a sufficiently large proportion of a population is immune to a contagious disease, the disease cannot easily spread from person to person. The other benefit of a large vaccinated population is that diseases are less likely to mutate and render vaccines ineffective — as pertussis has in Maine — if they cannot gain a foothold in a community. The vaccination rate required to achieve herd immunity depends on the disease. For extremely contagious diseases like measles and pertussis, experts say 95 percent of the population must be immune.
“Too many vaccines too soon is too dangerous.”
Studies have shown that the current vaccine schedule poses no increased risk of injury. Maine requires nine vaccinations (covering 13 diseases) for all schoolchildren, including babies and toddlers in daycare. Parents and doctors have latitude to administer vaccines at a pace parents are comfortable with while still meeting school requirements.
“I don’t trust big pharma to study vaccine safety.”
The Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment project was established in 2001 to conduct and review clinical research on vaccine safety. CISA is a national network of vaccine safety experts from the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, seven medical research centers, and other partners. An exhaustive list of vaccine safety studies can be found on the CDC’s website.
“The vaccine court has awarded billions to injured people.”
Out of the trillions of vaccines administered since the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program began in 1988, $4 billion has been awarded to about 6,400 claimants, with the small number of severely impacted people receiving the bulk of the funds, confirming the rarity of severe adverse reactions.
“I don’t trust anything I read about vaccines.”
That’s understandable, given the barrage of misinformation in the public sphere. Parents who are still worried about vaccine safety should talk to their doctors, who are professionally obligated to provide accurate and up-to-date information about the risks of any medication or procedure, as well as the risks of not following medical advice and public health laws.
Karin Leuthy is a founder of Suit Up Maine and a Camden resident. Links to sources for the statements made here as well as Miramant’s complete testimony can be found here.