Junkfood Science: It bears repeating

August 26, 2008

It bears repeating

As children head back to school, this important information bears repeating. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that there’s been more cases of measles in our country during the last six months than at any time since 1996.

Scientific American interviewed the deputy director of the division of viral diseases at the CDC to learn how seriously parents should take this information. The entire interview offers information parents can use, but here are a few highlights. She began by explaining that measles once killed thousands of people a year, as many as 10,000 one year, but few people understand the most serious risks of measles.

[I]n the 1960s, right before the vaccine was developed, it killed 400 to 500 children every year out of 500,000 reported cases at that time. Three to four million cases actually occurred, because not all cases get reported. Of those 500,000 reported cases, there were 4,000 cases of encephalitis a year. That's brain infection and can have some serious sequellae, like retardation and things like that. Measles can also cause pneumonia…

Some parents think that American medical care is such that it can treat any complication on measles. They're not right on that...in terms of encephalitis. There's very little that can be done to alter that outcome. And there is no treatment for measles as such. There are no antivirals to use.

Measles is more contagious than most people realize, as she went on to explain:

It's the most highly infectious virus there is. If you have 100 unvaccinated people in a room and a person with measles walks in and coughs, 90 people or more will get measles. It's just very, very infectious. Coughing will aersolize the virus.

Finally, she spoke to parents who might be worried about vaccinating their child:

I encourage them to talk to their physician and get the best available information on what they are concerned about. There is a lot of misinformation on the web. We all use it a lot, but there's a lot of misinformation there. This vaccine has never contained thimerosal [a mercury-derived preservative linked by some to autism.] We don't consider that involved in causing autism but thimerosal was not included [in the measles vaccine].

As pediatrician, Dr. Ari Brown, M.D., wrote, the majority of measles cases reported in the latest CDC announcement were the result of parents who chose not to vaccinate their children, willing to take that risk for their child. “But what is even more troublesome are the babies who contracted measles from those kids and were too young to be vaccinated. Our babies, our most vulnerable citizens, rely on their communities to protect them from these diseases. Their communities failed them.”

This is why it is so important for consumers to understand science and not simply discount all information based on the source. Despite so much unsound stuff coming out anymore claiming to be about public health, the standard childhood vaccinations are the most tested medicines we have and are examples of the benefits of evidence-based public health. Dr. Brown closed by also urging parents to get sound information:

Despite the overwhelming evidence and research that vaccines have no role in autism, the "controversy" is a story that has a life of its own. In fact, 98% of parents who have access to healthcare still choose to vaccinate their kids. Life is too short to make parenting decisions based on bad information. And that life may be your child's. Autism advocates who say they'd "rather have their child get the measles" clearly have never seen the disease or watched a child die from it.

For more information:

When fears hurt — measles are making a comeback

For parents worried about vaccines

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Measles Vaccination website

U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health Childhood Immunization resources

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