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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Opening the Gate: Measles and The Irrational Fear of Vaccines

The Measles Virus
From Science.com

An infected patient.
From Healthnet.com

People do not believe lies because they have to, 
but because they want to.
--Malcom Muggeridge

A delusion is something that people believe in 
despite a total lack of evidence.
 –Richard Dawkins.

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited portions

In the year 165 AD an epidemic broke out in Rome.  Called the Antonine Plague, it claimed nearly 5 million lives.  Modern research suggests that the cause of this plague was a virus that would eventually come to be called Measles.  Highly contagious, the disease has touched nearly all of humanity at some point in time, killing over 200 million since 1855.

However, in 1963, Dr. Thomas Peebles and Dr. John Enders, who also pioneered the polio vaccine, produced the first Measles vaccine.  In 1971, the Measles vaccine was combined with other specifics for Mumps and Rubella, and since 2005 the shot included specifics for Varicella.  Once the vaccines were put into use, Measles cases fell from the hundreds of thousands per year until 2005 when the illness was judged no longer endemic to the United States.

Late in 2014, however, an outbreak of Measles occurred in Southern California, tied to exposures to infected people at two Disney theme parks.  As of this writing, the total number of victims has risen to 100 and will continue to grow.

How could this happen?

Part of the reason is the large influx of people into the United States from countries which still struggle with Measles, among other serious diseases.  Vaccinations are not widely used in many of these countries, allowing diseases to gain a foothold among the human population.  It doesn't help that Measles is a tough little bugger, as viruses go.  An infected person could sneeze a cloud of virus into the open air, and the virus would continue to live for up to two hours.  Most viruses don’t survive for any length of time outside the body.

But the real villain in this piece is a con man with a PhD by the name of Andrew Wakefield.

Wakefield led a group of researchers who in 1998 published a paper in the highly-respected British medical journal, The Lancet.  The paper described a link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder.  The controversy gained momentum in 2001 and 2002, until parents in the UK and in the United States began withholding the vaccinations from their children. 

The London Sunday Times investigative reporter Brian Deer discovered that Wakefield had, prior to submitting his paper to The Lancet received a significant amount of money from a group of lawyers who wanted to sue the vaccine producers.  This created a conflict of interest, the existence of which Wakefield hid from his research team and British authorities.

Deer reported in 2009 that Wakefield had fixed results and manipulated patient data in the original study, thereby creating a false link to autism.  The case was then investigated by the General Medical Council, the body which licenses doctors and supervises medical ethics in the UK.  The GMC released its findings in 2010 stating that Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly, acting with callous disregard for his patients.  The study had been conducted without the required approval of any independent ethics committee.  They also found that normal test results were changed to appear abnormal.  They also found sloppy lab technique with study samples having been contaminated.  The GMC found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct involving four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts of abusing developmentally challenged children.  His medical license was revoked.  The Lancet took the unprecedented step of fully retracting Wakefield’s paper from their published record.

Later, it was discovered that Wakefield had partnered with a father of one of the boys in the study to launch an MMR vaccination scare campaign.  Wakefield and the parent would profit from medical testing and the production of test kits to the tune of over $43 million per year.

The media’s role in spreading fear of the vaccine was also put under the microscope.  Other subsequent studies which clearly showed not one shred of evidence for the MMR vaccine as a causal factor in autism were downplayed, dismissed, and ignored by the media who were far more interested in exploiting people’s fear than in actually getting to the truth.

There has been a steady increase in autism since the 1990s, but this has been attributed to changes in diagnostic practices which enabled doctors to better identify and diagnose children so afflicted, and not because the disorder has actually spread.  Japan halted MMR immunizations in 1993, but found in 2005 that autism cases had continued to increase, further disproving any link.  As research into autism has expanded, a growing consensus points to random genetic mutations in DNA as the cause of autism.

But despite the fact that Wakefield, his research, his paper, and his reputation has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited through solid research, his lie about the vaccines continues to have life.  This was not helped by the advocacy of American actress Jenny McCarthy, who blamed the MMR vaccinations for disorders in her son Evan.  Experts have since identified Evan’s symptoms as being consistent with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, which is often misdiagnosed as autism. 

John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”  And while it is generally true that while lies run fast they are eventually overtaken by the truth, the false vaccine-autism link is one that just will not go away.  Because of that, there are hordes of otherwise rational American mothers who refuse to get their children vaccinated, not only for MMR, but all diseases, including the deadly polio.  This became a ticking time bomb that was bound to explode. 

And explode it did.

All the cases in California, according to health officials, involve people who were either never vaccinated, or never got the follow-on booster shot.  Now, this highly virulent and potentially deadly disease has roared back to prominence in a country where Measles had been all but eradicated just a few short years ago.

Vaccines are one of the miracles of science.  Humans are now protected from the ravages of diseases that have killed millions in the past.  All we have to do is get the shots.  But the sad characteristic of too many people to believe in torrid conspiracies despite not having a single fact to stand on, and despite those conspiracies being utterly disproved and discredited, has led us to a new medical crisis.  

The crazy thing is that the same people who would never miss their annual flu shot will refuse to protect their children by making sure they get their immunizations.  It’s helpful that schools and universities are now requiring proof that potential students have been vaccinated before allowing them entry, but there are isolated cases where people have tried to sue those institutions, claiming that somehow their civil rights have been violated.

Or as one wag put it, “Behind every cause is a lawyer banking millions.”  A judgement in England netted $15.9 million of which $8 million went to the lawyers, and $4.5 million to "expert" witnesses.

The worst part of this whole mess is that the consequences are not limited to one individual.  Diseases such as these can and will affect (and infect) neighborhoods, cities, counties, and even states.

In 2004, there was an outbreak of Measles in Iowa traced to an unvaccinated student who visited India.

In 2006, a Mumps outbreak in Chicago got its start from a group of people who had been poorly immunized.

In 2008, an outbreak of Measles in San Diego started with a child, whose parents refused to vaccinate him, who traveled to Europe and brought the disease home with him.  In that case, 839 people were exposed.

In that same year, a full-fledged Measles epidemic exploded in Europe, with thousands of victims in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.

The facts on vaccinations are clear.  They have saved, and will continue to save the lives of millions.  They are completely safe. 

The only threat, in this case, is the one to children of parents who choose to believe the lies of a proven con man rather than the incontrovertible truth.

We like to imagine there are walls and gates that protect us and keep us safe.  But refusing to immunize opens those gates and tears down those walls, leading us all wide open to an invasion that could only be described as medieval.
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