To keep kids healthy, knowledge is power
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle
About six years ago, a Texas resident visited Minnesota three times to talk with its Somali community. Not just any Texas resident: This was Andrew Wakefield, the doctor disgraced for his widely condemned 1998 study claiming a connection between autism and the measles vaccine. Dozens of studies have since proven Wakefield wrong, but scientific fact hasn't stopped him from continuing to spread harm.
That harm is very real and obvious today. Minnesota's Somali community saw its vaccination rate plummet by more than half, to 42 percent in 2014. And recently, 69 Minnesotans, most of them young children, most of them Somali, almost all of them unvaccinated, had fallen sick with measles.
Measles is a potentially deadly illness. About a fourth of the stricken Minnesota children had to be hospitalized. One in a thousand measles patients will suffer the serious side effect of encephalitis, or brain swelling, and there are many other possible complications. And measles is so swift-spreading that 90 percent of the unvaccinated people who are exposed will fall ill. Only 3 percent of vaccinated people catch the disease.
The situation in Minnesota might seem remote, but the parallels to the current situation in Texas shouldn't be overlooked. Yes, the childhood vaccination rate in this state is higher than 90 percent, but it is in Minnesota, too. The problem is that pockets of low vaccination appear in both states. At least three Texas schools - two private and one charter - have vaccination rates that appear to be below 70 percent. That is far too low for protecting our children. Some unvaccinated children have serious medical issues that preclude being vaccinated; they are entirely vulnerable to diseases that sweep through a community.
No one even knows how low the rates might have fallen at traditional public schools, because the state doesn't report those numbers. The only numbers available are the overall rates for the entire school district.
The Minnesota outbreak shows us Texans how easy it is for a vulnerable population to be misled by disinformation campaigns. With no way to ensure that the Somali community was hearing the other factual, science-based story, it was all too likely that young children would be seriously sickened. That could happen here.
Texas is unfortunately one of the strongholds of anti-vaccine sentiment, perhaps not surprising considering that Wakefield lives in our midst. So far, state lawmakers have refused to take even the most basic steps to fend off a Minnesota-like scenario. Bills died this legislative session that would have allowed parents to view the vaccination rates at individual public schools - would you want your child attending a school with a 42 percent immunization rate? - and that would have had parents take a simple online course to educate them about immunization before they could send their children to school unvaccinated.
Vaccine advocates and educators are not giving up, not by a long shot. The Immunization Partnership, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other groups will continue to provide the facts about vaccination, and we hope parents will seek information. We will press forward with education campaigns, because knowledge is the best antidote to baseless fears.
McGee is chair of the advocacy committee for The Immunization Partnership, a statewide nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases.