Less than a century ago, the world was a playground for deadly germs and viruses.
Epidemics of polio, influenza, smallpox and whooping cough wreaked havoc around the globe. Humans fought back with weapons honed in the laboratory — vaccines. These vaccines quashed the diseases with such shock and awe that most people have never seen them first-hand.
The fear of these diseases has ebbed so low that many parents are opting out of vaccinating their children.
Just across the border in Washington, 6.2 percent elected not to vaccinate this year — one of the highest rates of non-medical exemption rates in the country after Alaska (9 percent), Colorado (7 percent) and Minnesota (6.5). Oregon’s exemption rate rose to 5.6 percent, up from 5.2. (The percentages refer to kindergarten students.)
Public health officials are watching with trepidation as the exemption numbers rise.
Umatilla County Public Health Administrator Genni Lehnert-Beers is one of those officials who is concerned. Most of the diseases, she said, are only being kept at bay, but are in danger of roaring back.
“The only true disease to be eradicated is smallpox,” Lehnert-Beers said.
The rest are waiting in the wings for chinks in the armor. One disease, pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is already making an unsettling resurgence. The disease once was one of the most common childhood diseases and a major cause of childhood mortality.
So far, 58 children younger than a year have been diagnosed with whooping cough this year in Washington. Twenty-two ended up in the hospital and two died. Three cases cropped up last month in nearby Walla Walla in unvaccinated children.
In Umatilla County, one school-age child contracted whooping cough in September.
Whooping cough rarely kills adults. Most don’t experience the classic whoop at the end of each cough. The greatest danger comes when the virus is passed on to infants who aren’t as equipped to deal with the tenacious disease because they are too young to be fully immunized.
“In adults, it is a robust cough. In fact, it is often severe and persistent enough that some individuals have cracked ribs from coughing so hard,” Lehnert-Beers said. “But, it’s infants who have the enormous risk of dire pneumonia.”
Measles is also making a comeback.
New Zealand is in the midst of a measles outbreak that has affected more than 400 people this year. The United States is experiencing a spike in measles as well, mostly imported from other countries as Americans travel. According to the CDC, 118 people came down with measles in the first quarter of the year. In 89 percent of cases, the virus came from abroad.
In February, an unvaccinated 27-year-old Santa Fe woman is suspected of infecting people in several American cities after picking up measles in London. Flying home, she made stops in Washington, Baltimore, Denver and Albuquerque. The virus especially affects infants, pregnant women and people who have compromised immune systems. Side effects such as brain swelling and pneumonia, though rare, can prove fatal.
Diptheria and polio aren’t dead either. This year, an unvaccinated Australian woman, 22, died of diptheria this spring; Pakistan and China faced polio outbreaks.
“We have a very mobile world now,” Lehnert-Beers said. “Many other countries don’t have the same rate of vaccine coverage that we do.”
So, with these biological dangers only a hop-of-the-pond away or closer, why are growing numbers of parents hesitating when it comes to vaccinating their children?
The anti-vaccination camp has a powerful spokeswoman in actress and comedian Jenny McCarthy. She suspected the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine triggered autism in her son Evan. British research seemed to confirm the suspicion in 1998, though later research cast major doubt on the study and led to the study being dismissed as flawed.
But, Lehnert-Beers said, “the damage has been done — the information is out there.”
“It has been studied ad nauseum,” she said. “Researchers couldn’t find any link or indication that vaccines cause autism. The evidence just isn’t there.”
JB Handley co-founded Generation Rescue, the autism support group of which McCarthy is president. The Portland man, whose son has autism, said the research has been narrow, concentrating mostly on the MMR vaccine. Science is in the process of catching up to what he and thousands of other parents know is true.
“I have a 9-year-old son whose life was never the same after his 13-month vaccination appointment,” Handley said. “He went upside down.”
Handley said he has heard the same sad story from “thousands” of other parents.
“You can’t study one shot and say six shots are safe — it’s irrational and misguided,” Handley said. “The idea that the debate about whether vaccines cause autism is over is a pipedream of the CDC and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) – the sad reality is that children are going down every day.”
Lehnert-Beers said side effects exist, but they are rare and she doesn’t believe autism is one of them. She believes the main reason parents might be backing away from vaccination involves the passage of time.
“We don’t have a history of seeing these terrible diseases,” she said. “We have worked really hard to make these diseases go away.”
The problem is, they are not really gone. Unvaccinated people rely on vaccinated people to cushion them from disease. Public health officials talk about “herd immunity” where the vaccinated majority — the herd — provides protection for the unvaccinated minority.
Umatilla County’s exemption rate is fairly low — only 1.2 percent of parents filed exemptions in 2011 compared to the state average of 5.6. But, as more parents opt out of vaccination across the border in Washington, Lehnert-Beers said diseases could slip into Oregon.
“We co-mingle,” she said. “If rates of unvaccinated children continue to rise, we will see more and more disease.”
New Washington legislation may turn the tide of exemptions. The law requires parents and guardians, except for those who demonstrate membership in a religious body that does not believe in medical treatment, to first get information about the benefits and risks of vaccinations from a licensed health care provider.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.