The View cohost Meghan McCain slammed the anti-vaccine movement in a tweet last week: “Dear (anti-vaxxers), your stupidity and arrogance are putting the lives of children in danger!” Her message was a retweet of CNN’s Jake Tapper sharing his segment about an Israeli mother whose 8-month-old baby, too young to receive the vaccine, developed complications from measles and was hospitalized. The mother, Fainy Sukenik, attributed her baby’s measles to an unvaccinated and infected child. In the U.S., as of last Wednesday, we are seeing the most cases of measles for any year since the disease was declared “eliminated” nationally in 2000.
Measles is not the only disease that places children at risk when parents forgo routine childhood vaccinations. In lieu of vaccines, too many parents are returning to reckless and irresponsible practices, like chicken pox parties, that should be a thing of the past — a relic of a time when we could not prevent a disease that accounted for 11,000 hospitalizations and 100 deaths per year in the early 1990s, just before introduction of the vaccine. In March, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin went so far as to reveal that he took his nine children to chicken pox parties.
A safe and effective live vaccine against the varicella-zoster virus, the cause of chicken pox, has been available since 1995. The first dose is recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for children between 12 and 15 months of age, with a second dose between 4 and 6 years of age. According to the Immunization Action Coalition, all states have existing laws on immunizing children prior to school entry.
Much like measles, chicken pox, or varicella, is not a benign illness. Patients with chicken pox experience an itchy rash of blisters, fever, headache, and lethargy, but may also suffer serious, life-threatening complications. Acute complications include dehydration, bacterial skin infections, sepsis, pneumonia, and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Shingles or zoster is the well-known long-term complication of childhood chicken pox. The virus may be especially serious for babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and patients with weakened immune systems. Because the vaccine is based on a modified live varicella-zoster virus, it cannot be given to immunocompromised patient populations. Those with compromised immune systems must rely on herd immunity, the protection provided when the rest of the population is adequately immunized.
The measles outbreak now includes more than 695 confirmed cases in 22 states this year. This uptick of another dangerous vaccine-preventable viral infection has been driven by vaccine misinformation disseminated by from “anti-vaxxers.”
Closer to home, an outbreak of mumps this year in the Philadelphia area may have stemmed from waning immunity of vaccinated college students, further supporting the value of vaccinations and monitoring vaccination status. Vaccine-preventable diseases of childhood should remain conditions that we teach for historical interest and use as cautionary tales. They should not be conditions we are treating with regularity in the United States.
» READ MORE: US measles cases hit highest mark in 25 years
Information on vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases should only be shared by health-care professionals, and not by politicians or others who have the public eye. When Gov. Bevin publicly asserted that his children "turned out fine” and that in America, we “should not be forcing this [vaccines] upon people,” he is sending the wrong message to the people of this country, and his actions put the public at risk.
Kentucky is in its second year of an outbreak of Hepatitis A, another vaccine-preventable disease. The state has been accused of being ineffective in addressing the deadly outbreak. This should be the focus of discussion instead of the governor’s choices in child rearing.
Bevin has every right to decide about medical care for his children. But he lacks the health-care training necessary to publicly advocate for a practice that contradicts one of the most important and successful public-health interventions of our lifetime. Immunizations have saved countless lives in the U.S. and globally.
As health-care providers, and as faculty charged with educating future nurses and physicians, we consider it appalling to expose children to highly contagious infectious diseases instead of vaccinating them. We recognize that parents have the right to make decisions regarding their children’s health and upbringing. However, as licensed and certified health professionals — a nurse, a nurse practitioner, and a physician — we believe that vaccines are safe and effective and represent a singular public-health achievement. Every child who can be vaccinated, should be vaccinated.
Ruth McDermott-Levy, Ph.D., MPD, MSN, RN, is associate professor and director of the Center for Global and Public Health, Michelle M. Kelly, Ph.D., CRNP, is an assistant professor and coordinates the pediatric nurse practitioner program at the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing. Robert J. Leggiadro, M.D., is an adjunct professor in the Departments of Biology, Geography and the Environment, all at Villanova University.