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Jane Ahlin, Published August 17 2013

Ahlin: Vaccines part of answer, not part of the problem

In “The Mirror Cracked,” one of my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries, a rather annoying woman dies from a poisoned drink. Immediately, everybody thinks the drink was intended for the famous actress she’d been talking to. (Spoiler alert: The murderer will be revealed.) The poisoning occurs at a reception for two female movie stars who can’t stand one another but must be polite in front of their fans in the small community of St. Mary Mead, where their latest movie is being filmed. (Do I need to say St. Mary Mead is the home of Miss Jane Marple – she who eats apples and appears addled but also uncannily solves baffling crimes because of her complete understanding of human nature?)

In this case, the woman who dies has just told one of the actresses how she met her once before, right after World War II when she got up from her sick bed to meet the actress because she adored her. That’s the big clue, and skipping to the denouement, it was the adored actress, herself, who poisoned her fan. The actress realized it was that ardent fan, so many years before, who had exposed her to German measles (rubella virus) when she was in early pregnancy, causing her child to be born with severe mental and physical disabilities. On the spur of the moment, the actress poisoned the woman. (The story probably was based on the real-life experience of actress Gene Tierney– all but the murder.)

That old mystery came to mind when I was reading about a trend in some parts of the country, a trend of young parents opting out of having their children vaccinated – as if vaccinations are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. Of course, present-day parents are extremely unlikely ever to have seen a child suffering from any of the so-called “childhood diseases.” Rather, they grew up with vaccines and a 99 percent rate of prevention. (Note: the MMR – measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine – came into general use in 1971.) The MMR is of particular concern because of a fraudulent medical study published in 1998 linking the vaccine to autism. Debunked many times over by legitimate studies since then, the bogus link still took on a life of its own.

Not surprisingly, health officials have a problem conveying the serious nature of disease epidemics to parents who know nothing of the bad old days before vaccinations were available. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, however, remember well the whispered stories about babies born with congenital rubella syndrome. For that matter, we remember having the measles and mumps ourselves, and the misery of fever and itching, swelling or scarring. Of course, there was a rubella epidemic in the 1960s. In 1964-65, there were 12.5 million rubella cases overall. Among disease sufferers, 11,000 women had miscarriages or therapeutic abortions and in newborns, 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome occurred, including more than 2,000 deaths and the rest with problems such as blindness, deafness, limb defects, heart defects and mental retardation.

Obviously, nobody wants to return to that. And yet, whooping cough outbreaks in Michigan in 2008 and California in 2010 were worst in areas where a substantial number of parents had opted out of vaccines for their children, suggesting other outbreaks or epidemics could follow.

The good news for us is that North Dakota averages between 1 and 2 percent of parents opting out, a number that health officials say has remained constant and a number well below the 5 percent threshold that causes concern.

Nationally, however, it’s a worry. According to recent polling, the anti-vaccination trends cuts across all political and socioeconomic associations, from libertarians to liberals and creationists to atheists. It’s as if vaccination has come to stand for environmental and cultural influences on the health of children that parents fear – all the things they wish they could control. Grandparents and great-grandparents ought to ease their minds. Vaccines are part of the answer, not part of the problem.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.