Once any idea becomes accepted by the general public, it becomes frozen by habit and time; when it’s proven wrong the “falsehood index” hardly declines. New evidence is ignored in the zeitgeist of immutable belief. I am indebted to the comedian, Stephen Colbert, for introducing us to his term, truthiness-in the dictionary now-signifying imitation or ersatz truth, the appeal of raw feeling over proven reality.
Tragically, truthiness can get dangerous. Vaccine-preventable diseases, such as diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, mumps, and rubella are increasing. The anti-vaccination hysteria which has resulted in measles (as well pertussis) coming back to haunt us after years of virtual disappearance. By 2000 measles was virtually eliminated in this country. But worldwide, there are still about 20 million cases a year; in 2013, 145,700 people died of measles. Last year several hundred new cases were reported in the U.S., the largest outbreak in almost 20 years. Parents have elected not to vaccinate their children because they can; 19 states have philosophical exemptions to vaccination, and 47 have religious exemptions. Between October 1990 and June 1991, 1,400 people living in Philadelphia were infected with measles and nine children died. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that the deaths had nothing to do with a new strain, and “everything to do with the parents.” They have recently reported that one-third of all children between 1-3 years have not been immunized. The percentage of American who believe vaccines are safe or effective is only 53%.
One estimate (JAMA) suggests that from 1924 to 2012 childhood vaccinations prevented more than 100 million cases of serious disease. The fundamental question is: do parents’ right to raise their children justify their decisions to not to vaccinate, thus putting the entire community at risk for disease?
Martin F. Sturman, MD, FACP
copyright 2015, Mathemedics, Inc.