A new op-ed in the LA times describes a woman who’s child contracted measles and got a rare complication (encephalitis, with an incidence of 0.1% according to the article). She goes on to blame people who do not vaccinate for measles.
Encephalitis is an awful disease. There are many causes of encephalitis ranging from bacteria, viruses and fungi, to toxins and autoimmune diseases. However, the most common cause of encephalitis in the world is the herpes simplex virus, not measles. Herpes simplex is the same virus that causes cold sores.
Now, you don’t see any articles telling you not to kiss your child if you have herpes simplex virus, or that teachers and care givers should be screened for this virus. We also don’t hear about the adverse events and deaths from vaccination in the news. However, if you search the internet you will find them, typically in foreign media. The VAERS database kept by the CDC for reporting adverse events (which most people and physicians don’t even know about) showed 129 deaths attributed to vaccination in 2013. While not all of these deaths were convincingly due to a vaccine, many were. In fact, over 60 of them were within one day of being vaccinated. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t vaccinate our kids, but it also means that we shouldn’t be ridiculing those who are questioning whether it is the best thing to do for their children.
Unfortunately, this is the type of hype that is used to try to institute policies to force vaccination. This idea that a herd immunity exists only when we have 90+% (the exact figure depends on the disease) of people vaccinated is false. There have been repeated outbreaks of measles in populations with up to a 99% vaccination rate (example here). This is because of multiple reasons. For example, vaccination efficacy wears off relatively quickly (within a few years). Also many diseases have non-human hosts such as insects, pets, rats, etc. that are not influenced by vaccination policies. For more information on the idea of herd immunity and some interesting information on measles, here is a lecture by a PhD in immunology who did her post-doc at Harvard and Stanford:
While it’s difficult to understand how someone could deny that vaccines have some efficacy against certain specific diseases with the amount of data out there, the overall data on infectious disease mortality (deaths) has not changed significantly since vaccines were introduced. This suggests that people now aren’t dying of a vaccine preventable disease anymore, but they are still dying from infectious diseases at the same rate. A likely interpretation is that if someone’s immune system is so compromised that they would die of the chickenpox and so forth, then they now won’t die of chickenpox but something else will get them that there is no vaccine for. One important note: This would not be true of certain diseases such as Ebola. If there is an Ebola epidemic where there is a 50% kill rate, this is not simply an issue of a weak immune system, the pathogen is too strong. In such diseases, it would seem likely that the risks of the disease would outweigh any (even unknown) risks of the vaccine. We can’t really compare Ebola to measles in terms of how deadly these are.
By the way, here is an official chart of the incidence of measles in the UK and the number of deaths.