Traditionally, childhood vaccinations have been the most effective way to prevent a number of diseases that would otherwise pose grave risks to public health. In the United States, diseases such as polio and small pox have been eliminated due to vaccines and are a testament to advances in scientific medicine for well over a century. However, in recent years the country has experienced a backlash to immunizations, and this has had a deleterious impact to the lives of children. Public health officials have found increases in pertussis, which had been effectively wiped out in previous years. There also appears to be a trend, with origins found via the internet and social networking, where disinformation concerning immunization has led to increasing numbers of parents opting out of vaccinations for their children. Clearly, it is high time to respond to this urgent public health crisis through highly comprehensive efforts by public health officials throughout the country.
A 2010 study conducted by physicians affiliated with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Emory University School of Public Health, and the Immunization Branch, California Department of Public Health, found that it was 2.5 times more likely for outbreaks of pertussis to occur in population clusters where parents had opted out of vaccinating their children for nonmedical reasons (Atwell, et al., 2010). This alarming fact is seen more as a trend, as seemingly more parents are choosing not to allow their children to be vaccinated, regardless of the risks to public health. As the authors of this study note, prior to a vaccination for pertussis in the 1940s, otherwise known as whooping cough, it was responsible for the highest mortality rates in this country (Atwell, et al., 2010).
A year prior to the 2010 study, a national poll conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that an overwhelming majority of American parent recognized the importance of vaccinations (Kennedy, Basket & Sheedy, 2011), yet a year later the evidence begins to point to the contrary. What now appears to be understood is that parents who now refuse childhood vaccinations obtain their information from the internet and social networking (Jones, Omer, Bednarczyk, Halsey, Moulton & Salmon, 2012). This is a stark departure from the past when health-related information was passed on through family physicians who, for most parents, were essentially sole-source authorities on the issue of vaccinations. What makes the current trend so alarming is that the information found on various websites or passed through social networking sites is that it is based either upon pseudo-science or non-scientific arguments that spread fear and trepidation (Jones, et al., 2012).
For example, internet websites based primarily in the United States assert that parents have an ethical and moral duty to avoid immunizing their children. However, they seldom if ever state the ethics or morality concerning the risk to public health and the fact that innocent lives are at risk (Kata, 2010). Another argument is equally as scurrilous, alleging that vaccines are responsible for life-threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS, various cancers including leukemia, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). These internet and social media sources also claim that vaccines can lead to fibromyalgia, asthma and, perhaps most prevalent of all, autism. These claims persist, regardless of the scientific evidence. The case of “contracting” autism is a perfect example, where accusations have been lobbied against various vaccinations that prevent diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. However, research has been consistent on this matter: no such association exists (DeStefano, Price & Weintraub, 2013).
In order to stem the threat to public health concerning this matter it is recommended that a two-pronged approach be taken. First, federal, state and local public health officials must develop comprehensive internet-based and social networking programs that will directly address the concerns of parents who would otherwise only rely on disinformation. Secondly, public health officials must also augment this effort by developing a media strategy that provides the public-at-large with comprehensive information pertaining to the science of vaccinations and immunology. It is believed that both efforts will play a significant role in reducing the numbers of parents who refuse providing their children with appropriate care in this matter.