Share this article

print logo

Refusing or delaying vaccines puts children at risk

The U.S. Supreme Court this month declined to hear a New York case in which parents were objecting, on religious grounds, to mandated vaccinations for children to attend public school. This is welcome legal news, and it should be ever more clear that the “religion” of parental avoidance of vaccines is not resting on theology as much as it is lies they hear from politicians.

A case in point is the widely viewed September GOP presidential debate where we heard Donald Trump telling parents to beware of lifesaving vaccines to their children. He claimed he personally heard stories of children who “got very very sick” after receiving vaccines and who are now autistic.

His claim that there is a direct link between vaccines and autism is outright wrong, and based on widely debunked data from the late 1990s that claimed a connection between vaccines and several diseases, including autism. Numerous studies over the last 20 years have repeatedly proven there is no link between vaccines and autism.

One recent study centered on the ingredient thimerasol, one of the prime suspects of anti-vaxxers. That argument should have crumbled many years ago when thimerasol was voluntarily removed from vaccines, and now following this study, the argument should be forever laid to rest.

A different type of study published earlier this year evaluated the health records of over 95,000 children and again showed no link whatsoever between vaccines and autism. The lack of connection between vaccines and autism is so clear that even the main autism advocacy organization strongly encourages all children to receive their vaccines on schedule.

So, why are we still talking about this issue?

Apparently, if the science is too strong, politicians and celebrities switch to distraction and fear-inducing tactics. For example, in that same GOP debate, Trump said, “You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump – I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse and not for a child.” He was, of course, referring to the size of the needle used to deliver vaccines.

Trump’s belief that doctors use needles “meant for a horse and not for a child” is downright silly. There is no doubt that many of us fear needles, and to us the needle looks psychologically much larger. But fear not. Human doctors do not use horse needles. A 1-year-old child weighs around 20 to 25 pounds, whereas a newborn horse weighs 80 to 150 pounds. Doctors use much smaller, more delicate needles to safely deliver vaccines to children.

Since Trump is not a doctor, we should not blame him for not knowing about needles. But we can’t give the same pass to two other candidates, Rand Paul and Ben Carson, because they are doctors.

Despite the science, Paul agrees with Trump on the vaccine-autism connection. Carson has supported the science and unequivocally states that vaccines don’t cause autism; however, he walks a fine line in endangering children’s lives. Carson, like Trump, is a proponent of giving fewer vaccines at each visit so they are delivered slowly over a longer period of time. Unfortunately, around 40 percent of parents in the United States also agree.

What these parents and presidential candidates need to know is that the vaccine schedule is carefully designed to provide the best protection early in life, when children are most vulnerable to the most dangerous complications of vaccine-preventable diseases. Delaying vaccines puts children at risk.

Without vaccines, diseases like measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and polio can cause children to suffer discomfort, disfiguration or even death. Babies under 1 year of age who contract whooping cough (also known as pertussis) have a 50 percent chance of hospitalization. There are still over 195,000 deaths worldwide each year from this one disease alone. Those numbers are too high; more children need to be protected by vaccines.

The consequence of vaccine refusal became all too apparent on a national scale earlier this year when there was an outbreak of measles that originated at Disneyland in California. Between December 2014 and April, 159 people fell ill with measles and 111 of those were directly associated with the Disney outbreak. The measles spread so far so fast because more than 80 percent of those who became sick were either unvaccinated or did not know if they were vaccinated. Reduced vaccine rates allow these preventable diseases to gain the upper hand.

The decision of the Supreme Court to not hear the New York case is not the first time the high court has come down on the side of vaccines and protecting citizens. During the outbreak of smallpox in the early 1800s, Massachusetts implemented a mandatory smallpox vaccine that received an unsuccessful court challenge. It was a matter of safety for all citizens. We can only hope that the justices stay above the political rhetoric and continue to rule in favor of vaccines saving lives.

Cynthia Leifer is an associate professor of immunology at Cornell University and a 2015 Public Voices Fellow at the Op-Ed Project.