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Healthy Living: February 19, 2019

BANGOR, Maine (WABI) - Almost everyone has heard about the measles outbreak in Washington State. Vaccination can easily become a contentious topic; nonetheless the consequences of this unfortunate event offer an opportunity to delve into the critically important concept of herd immunity. We all love our children. I have no doubt that parents who opt out of vaccination do so from a perspective that it is the safest choice for their child’s health. An integral element of that decision must be the perception that the risk of receiving the vaccine is greater than the risk of ever getting the disease the vaccine prevents.

ZaldyImg / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 / Pixabay

The risk in the US for un-immunized people contracting infections targeted by routine vaccination had been very low, but this is changing. The concept of herd immunity is simple. Infections such as measles are spread between people. If a group (herd) of people (animals) are almost all completely immune to an infection, the rare individual who is not immune will be protected for the simple reason that they are surrounded by people who can’t be infected. Therefore the chance of the susceptible person ever being exposed to the infection is extremely small. In a sense the large immunized group creates a protective bubble around the small vulnerable members of the group. In the unlikely event one of these vulnerable members did get infected, the herd immunity effect greatly decreases the chances it would be passed on to another susceptible member. If the number of people in an area who are not immunized increases, as occurred in Washington, this protection is gone. If a single unprotected member of such a group gets infected – in this case by the highly contagious measles virus – it will quickly spread too many other un-immunized members of the community.

The bottom line message for parents is that the math has changed. As vaccination rates have dropped, unvaccinated children and adults are at ever increasing risk of getting these infections. The risk of contracting a disease like measles was indeed very low for decades – ironically because of the herd immunity protection provided by high vaccination rates. Falsehoods about the dangers of vaccination such as those started by the disgraced and disbarred Andrew Wakefield have fueled decline in vaccination rates, likely in combination with human tendency to worry less about threats you have never seen. Herd immunity is extremely important to maintain at all times.There will always be those who cannot be vaccinated for various reasons. Often these are the weakest and most vulnerable among us such as babies. For example, the first dose of the measles vaccine is not given before 12 months and most cases of measles deaths occur in children under five. Individuals who cannot be safely vaccinated truly have no choice. They are at the mercy of the rest of their community.

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