By Gregory Roloff
As the first year of medical school comes to a close, I continually find myself fixating on the unprecedented outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough that have erupted throughout the country, attributed to low rates of vaccination. I find this unfortunate, given that the debate surrounding the safety and efficacy of immunizations has been scientifically settled.
The driving force for today’s anti-vaccine movement was ignited in 1998, when British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a study linking the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Parents of autistic children demanded answers, which they rightfully deserved. Large, exhaustive studies have allowed the medical establishment to speak with a united voice: There is no connection between the MMR shot and autism. An investigation by Britain’s General Medical Council found that Wakefield’s research was fabricated. But it didn’t matter. The seed of doubt had been planted.
As a family member of an autistic teenager, I am frustrated that we do not adequately understand this perplexing malady. However, recent progress warrants excitement. In 2013, researchers in California reported that 23 percent of all cases might be explained by the presence of antibodies produced in the mothers of autistic children. This past March, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study demonstrating that the architectural irregularities of the autistic brain can be detected in prenatal stages, well before any vaccine is administered.
My role as a student provides an opportunity to interact with patients holding a vast array of health philosophies. Vaccine detractors usually point out their right to say no and the presumed obligation of health care providers to respect their position. Truthfully, I struggle to be complicit in such delusion. I do not respect the revival of diseases that plagued my grandparents, nor do I respect negligent practices that endanger children. Some individuals, such as newborns too young to be vaccinated or those with an immune-compromised medical status, rely on the rest of us. By protecting ourselves, we are limiting the infectious capacity of circulating pathogens. In doing so, these sensitive individuals are protected as well.
Last August, my classmates and I swore the Hippocratic Oath. We did not vow to provide substandard care. We promised to serve our patients with safe, effective and proven practices. It is time to call for the legal removal of all childhood vaccine exemptions. They are irresponsible and incompatible with the noble field of medicine and the safety of our society. History has always favored those who aspire to intelligence instead of those who disparage it.
Gregory Roloff of Tonawanda is a first- year medical student at the University at Buffalo and former research fellow at the National Institutes of Health.