Vaccines save lives

One persistent, passionate but wrong-headed proposal that will probably reappear during the 2018 session of the Mississippi Legislature is to weaken the state’s immunization requirements for children attending public schools.

Driven by a small slice of parents who believe that childhood immunizations — which protect against diseases and their spread — can themselves cause severe maladies, such as autism, or even death, there have been regular, but so far unsuccessful, efforts in the Legislature to carve out additional exemptions.

Usually, these campaigns are based on either bunk science — such as the supposed autism link that has been thoroughly discredited — or on misleading statistics.

The latter is the case with a billboard, erected recently in Tupelo by a group calling itself Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights, that claims more than 50 Mississippi babies have died following routine vaccinations.

As usual with arguments that are designed to appeal to emotion rather than reason, the billboard leaves out several pertinent points. The first is the source for the “50 baby deaths” claim. It is a federal registry that anyone can fill out — doctors, parents, lawyers — to report an adverse event following a vaccination, even if there is no proof that the vaccine and the adverse event are related. In other words, there is not enough information provided in the registry to determine whether the two occurrences are causal or coincidental.

But even if we accept the worst — namely that the vaccines caused the deaths — the other point the billboard fails to mention is the 50 deaths occurred over two decades, or about two per year.

That is a tiny risk when weighed against all the benefits of vaccination. Immunizations and public health policies in this country have been on the verge of wiping out what used to be serious and sometimes deadly diseases, such as polio, measles, mumps, whooping cough and chicken pox. In the last few years, though, some of these diseases have been starting to reappear in places where immunizations have become lax.

This year, for instance, Minnesota has reported 79 cases of measles, a number that exceeded the entire nationwide total for 2016. The vast majority of the cases were in unvaccinated children, mostly of Somali descent, whose parents bought into the autism-vaccination hysteria.

Not only did these parents put their own child at risk, but they took chances with the children of other families, given how contagious measles can be. On average, each measles patient infects 12 to 18 others, three times the rate at which flu is passed on.

One of the few health-related success stories in Mississippi has been its high vaccination rate. With more than 99 percent of kindergarteners entering school fully immunized, Mississippi leads the nation. Misleading ad campaigns should not change what is a smart public health policy.