Opinion

opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Why vaccines matter

A doctor administered a measles vaccine to a Yemeni child at a health center in November.
AFP/Getty Images
A doctor administered a measles vaccine to a Yemeni child at a health center in November.

Earlier this week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie weighed in on the growing national debate about vaccinations by claiming that “parents need to have some measure of choice” about whether to vaccinate their children. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who attended medical school, went even further and argued that vaccines should be voluntary.

These are, to the say the least, ironic statements, because in many places around the world the choice on vaccinations is not whether to get them or not — rather, it’s a life or death decision.

Consider the most recent front in the vaccination battle — measles. Last month more than 100 people in 14 states were diagnosed with the disease. The source of the outbreak was traced back to Disneyland in California. Since tourists from around the world visit the amusement park, it led to fears that infected patients could spread the disease and put many more people at risk — and not just those who aren’t vaccinated.

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Even though the United States eradicated measles in 2000, the disease is making a comeback, due in large part to the rise of an anti-vaccination movement that encourages parents not to vaccinate their kids, based on the discredited theory that vaccinations can cause autism or other health maladies. Indeed, Paul regurgitated the discredited notion that vaccines can cause “profound mental disorders” in children. With this kind of junk science being thrown around — and validated by politicians, celebrities, and charlatans — it’s small wonder that 2014 had the highest number of measles cases in more than two decades.

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The irony of all this is that as Americans are “choosing” to leave their kids vulnerable to easily preventable diseases, we are seeing firsthand around the world why vaccines matter. They save millions of lives every year.

For example, in 2000, approximately 500,000 children around the world died from measles. But after an initiative was launched to distribute the vaccine to developing countries, the death rate has fallen dramatically — to about 150,000 in 2011.

In 1990, 10 percent of the world’s children died before age 5; today’s it’s one in 20. According to the Gates Foundation, which has become a global leader in vaccine distribution, by 2030 that number will be 1 in 40; and almost all countries will include vaccines for diarrhea and pneumonia, both of which prey on children.

One of the Gates Foundation’s most important advances is the Global Vaccine Alliance, which is responsible for the vaccination of nearly half a billion children each year. It also helped develop a “pentavalent” vaccine that combines five separate immunizations in one shot.

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All of this makes the politicization of the issue by people like Christie and Paul that much more troubling and, frankly, difficult to understand. With all we know about the success of vaccines, it’s hard to imagine a more irresponsible act from a public official than seeding doubt about their importance. In pursuit of short-term political gain, both Christie and Paul are seemingly willing to throw science and public health out the window. To their credit, other Republicans like Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and Bobby Jindal stepped to the plate to point out how dangerous these kind of anti-vaccination messages can be.

It’s important to remember that this is an issue that is about more than the children of parents who choose to ignore the science of vaccines — it’s about every child. The effectiveness of the measles vaccine relies on something called herd immunity. While the vaccine is 95 percent effective, it doesn’t eliminate the virus, so the more people (the herd) who are immunized the less chance that the disease can easily be transmitted. But if fewer people vaccinate, it increases the possibility of the disease spreading and potentially infecting those who are too young for the vaccine or can’t take it for medical reasons. While measles outbreaks tend to be localized to places where vaccination rates are low, the more communities that choose to opt out — or are given the option to do so — the more chance of the disease spreading.

So the choice of getting children vaccinated should not be a choice at all. If anything, Christie, Paul, and parents who are thinking about declining to vaccinate their children should cast their gaze a bit more widely. All the evidence they need about the urgency of vaccinations is out there.

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Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.