Many are familiar with the anti-immunization fervor begun by an unscrupulous doctor in England who published misrepresented data from an already grossly biased and flawed study linking vaccines to the development of autism in young children. That doctor was later largely discredited and even had his medical license revoked for his flagrant unethical deviation from what are acceptable standards of research. Although this man holds no credibility and the medical community overwhelmingly rejects a vaccine link to autism based on actual ethically structured and honestly reported research, still many chose to believe in the unfounded link.
What made matters worse was when celebrities with no medical or even basic higher learning in science – most notably former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy – jumped on the vaccine-causes-autism bandwagon. Despite no real data supporting the link of vaccines to autism, cutting edge genetic research providing strong evidence for autism being a genetic disease, and the position of the American College of Pediatricians unequivocally rejecting a vaccine-autism link, there still are a troubling number of people who prefer to believe a celebrity without formal medical training.
As a result, the anti-vaccine movement has led to a surge in deadly, preventable infectious disease in children such as measles, mumps and rubella, with a rising body count left in its wake. There is a website that actually tracks the anti-vaccine body count by keeping a running tally of illnesses and deaths that have occurred over parental decisions to not have basic immunizations for their children against their doctors’ advice:
I advise you to take a look, as it is truly eye opening, as it is disturbing. Per the website, since Jenny McCarthy began her anti-vaccine crusade in 2007, there have been 126,180 preventable illnesses, among them 1,299 deaths. What is most troubling in the mix, are the children that legitimately cannot receive vaccines because they may have immune suppressive disease, are undergoing cancer treatment, or have other conditions that mandate avoidance of immunizations. For these children, their main mode of protection is community protection. Community protection occurs when the majority of vaccine eligible children whose parents choose to comply with recommended immunizations are protected, thereby decreasing the incidence of deadly infectious diseases in the community. By the majority keeping these diseases out of a community, the minority that medically cannot have vaccines are indirectly, collectively protected. In veterinary medicine, we call this effect, herd immunity.
The reason I bring this up, aside from the fact that I am a father of two young children whose lives are more precious to me than words can express (and I thus find such senseless avoidance of vaccines for diseases that kill innocent children appalling), is because this anti-vaccine fervor is spilling over into my industry. While the contrived link to bad things in dogs and cats may not be autism, they are blamed for any number of diseases, cancers, anxiety disorders, etc…the vast majority of which are baseless, non-scientifically based innuendo from non-medically trained people.
The truth is that extensive expense and allocation of resources the by American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), were directed toward vaccine research and subsequent reform in the early 2000s. This research was to determine the link between vaccine titer (protective antibodies whose production are stimulated by vaccination) levels and effective prevention of a given disease in order to see which vaccines we could legitimately and safely reduce the frequency of, and which ones we could not.
Both of these aforementioned governing bodies of the veterinary profession also stressed veterinarians to recommend vaccines only for diseases that are endemic in the region they practice, and to avoid vaccinations for diseases that are not. They also stressed that we incorporate lifestyle considerations for each individual patient when formulating vaccine strategies that are commensurate with lifestyle based risk assessment.
Despite explaining to pet owners that the vaccines we recommend are based on lifestyle and regional risk assessment, and each vaccine protocol we engage in for a given patient is based on scientifically and ethically established AVMA and AAHA guidelines, there remains the small percentage of people that prefer to dismiss what we say. They choose to instead take their groomer’s word or the word of some person they never met on an internet forum who recommended they avoid vaccination for preventable, endemic and deadly diseases.
Not unlike human medicine, we are subsequently seeing a resurgence of deadly disease like canine parvo, feline panleukopenia, canine distemper, canine infectious hepatitis and leptospirosis. What’s more, for our patients that legitimately have medical reasons why they should not receive vaccines, they consequently are at greater risk when pets in the majority that can and should receive vaccines, fail to receive them due to the owner’s refusal to allow it. Thus, pet owners that refuse vaccines for their pets do not only stand to put their own pets in harm’s way, but by decreasing herd immunity, they put other innocents in danger who have medical restrictions that preclude their ability to receive vaccines.
While we do not yet have an anti-vaccine body count website to keep a running tally, make no mistake, the anti-vaccine body count in animals continues to rise as it does in people.
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.