Outbreaks Are Possible
Physicians point out that generations ago, no one questioned the need for childhood immunizations because the diseases vaccines protect against were prevalent. But today, because these illnesses rarely occur in the U.S. due to successful vaccination practices, we've grown complacent about the harm they can do, says Julie Boom, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. But these killer diseases are just a plane ride away: Maybe Grandma's visited Africa recently, or Uncle Ed's trekked through India or Asia, unwittingly bringing back something deadlier than souvenirs.
Travel Increases Spread of Disease
"Parents say, 'Others vaccinate so I don't have to,'" says Sharon Humiston, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at the University of Rochester, in New York. But the gamble is great: "Travel makes disease exposure common nowadays. Unvaccinated children are vulnerable, and they can also spread disease within a community." Plus, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that unvaccinated kids are 22 times more likely to contract measles and nearly six times more likely to get pertussis than vaccinated children. And another JAMA study found the measles risk to be 35 times greater for unvaccinated kids.
These numbers are significant, because it only takes a slight dip in immunization rates to spark an outbreak. Consider the measles epidemic that hospitalized more than 11,000 American preschoolers and claimed 120 lives from 1989 to 1991, when measles vaccinations slipped. Or the mumps epidemic that hit Great Britain last year, infecting 70,000 people before it hopped the Atlantic, sickening nearly 1,700 people in the Midwest earlier this year.