Have you ever seen a child with measles? Probably not, unless you are well over 50, because we have reduced the incidence from half a million cases a year in the U.S. prior to the creation of an effective vaccine (MMR) in 1957, to a handful of cases a year. At least that was the case until large numbers of parents started refusing to immunize their children.
We essentially eradicated the disease from the Western Hemisphere by the year 2000. But when parents, frightened by Andrew Wakefield’s thoroughly discredited “research” that the measles vaccine causes autism, started to refuse to vaccinate their children, measles has been returning with a vengeance. Not uniformly across America, but primarily in the communities where such beliefs are endemic. Communities like Ashland.
But back to the question. Have you ever seen a child with measles? They are miserably sick with high fevers, cough, an awful rash, and sometimes pneumonia. Some are left deaf, or blind, and rarely, some die. In the 21st century, in the developed world, up to 40 percent of kids with measles are hospitalized. In Third World countries where immunizations are less available and nutrition is poor, mortality is much higher. In 2014 there were 114,900 deaths worldwide from the disease, mostly children, but also immune-compromised and chronically ill adults.
The good news is there is a remarkably effective and safe vaccine. That's important because measles is one of the most contagious diseases. Thanks to community immunity, when individuals are vaccinated we all benefit, because measles transmission is prevented. In the 1990s, when vaccine rates were high, there was essentially no measles transmission in the U.S. Even an errant case coming into the country had little possibility of spreading because we were all protected. However, over the past few years the number of cases has increased. An outbreak traced to Disneyland in 2014 had over 100 cases directly linked to one exposure.
The rate of measles vaccination in Ashland public schools ranges from 56 percent to 86 percent. It takes a rate of 93 percent or more to prevent measles from spreading in any particular institution. Ashland is a community ripe for a measles outbreak.
That brings me to the decision by Varsity Theaters to bring the movie "Vaxxed" to Ashland. It apparently glorifies the discredited Mr. Wakefield (he was a doctor before he had his license taken away), and uses scary music and disturbing graphics to suggest that unscrupulous government and industry types are withholding the truth from us all, that the MMR vaccine causes autism. This supposed link has been debunked over and over and over again by the most rigorous of researchers. Not to believe the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and countless others is to accept a gigantic level of conspiracy to delude the public. Some of us have worked with the CDC and WHO and can assure you they are dedicated public servants whose motivation is to seek the truth, not to get rich and deceive all of us.
The respected Tribeca Film Festival decided not to show "Vaxxed." They saw it as a self-promoting, biased and dangerous venture masquerading as documentary.
To bring this inflammatory film into our community and legitimize the falsehood that MMR vaccine causes autism is nothing short of irresponsible. Rather than peddling thoroughly discredited information to vulnerable parents, we should be strengthening public health, promoting this effective vaccine and reducing the risk to children and the immune-compromised.
Jim Shames, M.D., is medical director of Jackson County Health and Human Services. This opinion is also signed by the following physicians. All are M.D.'s except as noted. Southern Oregon Pediatrics: Lee Murdoch, Matt Hough, Mary Hough, Barbara Sibley, Greg Conway, Valerie Ljungkvist, Mike Mills, Mary Murdoch and Ahan Newman. Ashland pediatricians: Donna Bradshaw and Diane Williams. Children and Adolescence Clinic: Sarah Christensen, Lawrence Stumpff, Martin Young and Christina Martin. Community physicians: Jani Rollins; Corey Kahn; Josh Cott; Mimi Choat; Karen Sauer; Linda Harris; Courtney Wilson; Kelly Dale, FNP; Bonita Ryall, NP; and Jennifer Hall.