This post was originally published in March 2014. It has been updated as of February 2015 to reflect new information such as the final number of measles cases for 2014. Updates are in bold italics.
With the recent measles outbreaks being covered extensively in the media, public opinion is once again pointing fingers at the “anti-vax” crowd.
Most articles I see assume that parents don’t vaccinate for a few basic reasons:
- Parents aren’t vaccinating because they believe a doctor called Andrew Wakefield whose study is infamous for bringing up an association between the MMR vaccine and autism in a study in 1998. His study was subsequently retracted and debunked, therefore these parents should vaccinate. (Ironically, most people would’ve forgotten about the study by now if the media didn’t constantly bring it up.)
Parents aren’t vaccinating because they’re afraid of their children getting autism. Evidence shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that vaccines can’t lead to autism, therefore these parents should vaccinate. (With newly released data from the CDC showing the autism rate at 1 in 68, parents who are questioning if it is caused by something we are doing to our children can hardly be blamed. Keep reading to find out that the evidence “proving” vaccines are safe isn’t as concrete as you might think.)
Parents aren’t vaccinating because of outspoken celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari (who??). These are celebrities, not doctors- therefore, parents should stop reading gossip magazines and vaccinate.
Parents aren’t vaccinating because they’re researching on Google. Google doesn’t know anything, doctors do. Therefore, parents should vaccinate. (Did you know that studies, CDC information and more are all uploaded and available online now? It’s 2014. Even doctors Google keywords to help them find applicable information and published works.)
Parents aren’t vaccinating because they’re being swayed by fear-mongering. Vaccines aren’t scary at all, diseases are. Therefore, parents should vaccinate. (Fear is a good instinct when parenting. There are things to fear about the diseases and the vaccines. Read on to learn more.)
I can’t speak for other parents but here are 9 reasons why we actually declined the MMR vaccine.
First, let’s take a look at what the MMR is.
The MMR vaccine is a combination vaccine used to prevent infection and transmission of three diseases: measles, mumps and rubella. You can also get the MMR as a combination vaccine with varicella (chickenpox). Both vaccines are manufactured by Merck.
Because the MMR was created for three different disease strains, my husband and I looked at each disease individually when deciding whether or not to get the MMR vaccine for our kids. This post will cover the reasons why we declined the measles vaccine specifically. Even if the MMR were available as three separate vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella, our decision for the measles vaccine would be the same.
Why We Declined the Measles Vaccine
1. Measles in the U.S. is almost always an uncomplicated disease that can be treated at home.
WebMD describes measles as:
The first symptoms of measles are like a bad cold—a high fever, a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and a hacking cough. The lymph nodes in your neck may swell. You also may feel very tired and have diarrhea and red, sore eyes. As these symptoms start to go away, you will get red spots inside your mouth, followed by a rash all over your body. When adults get measles, they usually feel worse than children who get it.
About 30% of all cases develop a complication. The most common complications are diarrhea, ear infection and pneumonia. Complications are more common in immunocompromised patients.
Less common complications include acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which happens in about 1 out of every 1,000 cases, and an extremely rare condition called SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis). SSPE occurs in about 2 out of every 100,000 cases of wild (naturally caught) measles. It appears 7-10 years after the initial measles infection and is always fatal.
The death rate for measles is about 1-2 out of every 1,000 cases (or 0.1%). Update to clarify: this number represents reported cases. The CDC estimates that while there were 500,000 cases of measles reported each year before the vaccine, there was an estimated total number of 3-4 million cases. The death rate before the vaccine including unreported cases was about 1 death for every 8,000 total estimated number of measles cases in the U.S.
While these serious complications can be scary, they are very rare and in the U.S. almost all children safely recover from measles within about 5-10 days.
2. Complications from measles can be cut by 50% with vitamin A supplements.
Vitamin A supplements given in proper dosages have shown to reduce the risk of measles complications and death by as much as 50%. Severe measles infection is more likely in malnourished and vitamin A deficient individuals, such as children in third world countries.
3. Measles deaths had already dropped 98.5% before the vaccine was released.
From the year 1900-1920 there was an average of 8,800 measles deaths in the United States every year. From 1921-1930 that number dropped to an average of 6,100 deaths. It dropped further still between 1931-1940 with an average of 2,700 deaths, and again between 1941 and 1950 with an average of 1,100 deaths per year. Between 1951 and 1960 there was an average of almost 500 deaths from measles per year in the United States, down 98.5% from the year 1900. The measles vaccine wasn’t licensed for use in the United States until 1963.
The graph below shows the decline in measles deaths up to 1960, three years before the vaccine was introduced.
While measles remained at an average of about 500,000 cases per year, there were now only about 48,000 hospitalizations every year and an average of about 500 deaths. (To put those numbers in perspective, each year in the United States between 55,000 and 80,000 people are hospitalized and 500 die from Tylenol overdoses).
The vaccine certainly brought down the number of measles cases in the U.S. We now average about 60-100 cases per year. But when you look at the numbers from previous years it’s apparent that with advancements in nutrition, sanitation and medicine, the numbers show measles shifting from a deadly disease into a more mild one with each passing decade- before the vaccine was even in use.
4. There are always measles cases in the U.S., despite high vaccination rates.
There has never been a case of zero measles in the U.S., despite what some media sources may want you to believe.
It’s also not true that measles is making a come-back because more people are opting out of the vaccine. In fact, vaccination rates for measles were at 88% in 1995. Since then vaccination rates have gone up and have hovered between 90% and 93%. Update: As the chart below shows, measles cases have continued to rise despite vaccination rates remaining stable.
5. Because the vaccine has risks, too, including the risks associated with the wild measles virus.
The government’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS)- where care providers, parents or others can report adverse events after vaccination- has nearly 70,000 adverse events reported for measles-containing vaccines to date.
An alarming 74% of these reports were children under the age of 6.
Of these reports, over 1,300 cases were disabled by their adverse event (such as loss of hearing or ability to walk), and 1,000 were considered life-threatening events. Almost 400 deaths were reported.
Because VAERS is used on a voluntary basis, there are many limiting factors. For example, people can report events that may not be linked to the vaccine. Or, doctors might receive notice of an adverse event from a patient and forget to (or choose not to) file an official report with VAERS. Most parents are unaware that they should report adverse events to the VAERS database, or they don’t know how.
It is estimated that only 1% to 10% off adverse events are reported to VAERS. If those numbers are accurate, the adverse reactions, complications and deaths from the MMR vaccine are far higher than the VAERS numbers.
VAERS may be more anecdotal than evidence-based but it’s not the only source of information for the MMR vaccine’s risks.
Let’s dive into the package insert for the MMR.
The package inserts states:
Postpubertal females should be informed of the frequent occurrence of generally self-limited arthralgia and/or arthritis beginning 2 to 4 weeks after vaccination.
Under Contraindications (those who should not be vaccinated for specific reasons) it lists the immunocompromised:
Measles inclusion body encephalitis (MIBE), pneumonitis and death as a direct consequence of disseminated measles vaccine virus infection have been reported in immunocompromised individuals inadvertently vaccinated with measles-containing vaccine.
Listed under contraindications:
Individuals with a family history of congenital or hereditary immunodeficiency, until the immune competence of the potential vaccine recipient is demonstrated.
Warnings listed in the package insert include caution to those with a history of cerebral-injury, a family or personal history of convulsions or other conditions in which fever should be avoided.
Hypersensitivity to Eggs- Live measles vaccine and live mumps vaccine are produced in chick embryo cell culture. Persons with a history of anaphylactic, anaphylactoid, or other immediate reactions (eg., hives, swelling of the mouth and throat, difficulty breathing, hypotension, or shock) subsequent to egg ingestion may be at an enhanced risk of immediate-type hypersensitivity reactions after receiving vaccines containing traces of chick embryo antigen. The potential risk to benefit ratio should be care fully evaluated before considering vaccination in such cases. Such individuals may be vaccinated with extreme caution, having adequate treatment on hand should a reaction occur.
What about vaccine-related measles? Can a child catch measles from the vaccine, or from someone who was recently vaccinated?
The package insert says:
There are no reports of transmission of live attenuated measles or mumps viruses from vaccinees to susceptible contacts.
Actually, there have indeed been cases of vaccine-associated measles (with symptoms that were characterized as indistinguishable from wild type measles), AND secondary transmission from one of the individuals infected by the measles vaccine.
Further down in the package insert, there’s a statement that says:
The health-care provider should provide the vaccine information required to be given with each vaccination to the patient, parent, or guardian. The health-care provider should inform the patient, parent, or guardian of the benefits and risks associated with vaccination. For risks associated with vaccination.
This is known as informed consent. Yet this study shows that at well-child care doctor visits, a median time of only 1.9 minutes is spent on vaccine discussion and an additional 1.6 minutes on vaccine administration. And only 5% of families read vaccine information materials. Is that enough time to accurately discuss the benefits AND risks of vaccination? Is it possible to go over family history, previous vaccination history, questions about the disease, adverse reactions to watch for after vaccination, and any patient concerns in less than 2 minutes? If possible, is it wise to rush through such an important topic?
Under the section entitled “Carcinogenesis, Mutagenesis, Impairment of Fertility M-M-R II the package insert states that the vaccine “has not been evaluated for carcinogenic or mutagenic potential, or potential to impair fertility.” ”
(Emphasis in bold added by me.)
The MMR vaccine is a category C during pregnancy, which means it is not known whether it can cause fetal harm and should not be administered to pregnant women, and pregnancy should be avoided for 3 months following vaccination with MMR.
Following are the listed adverse reactions in the package insert:
Body as a Whole
Panniculitis; atypical measles; fever; syncope; headache; dizziness; malaise; irritability
Pancreatitis; diarrhea; vomiting; parotitis; nausea
Hemic and Lymphatic System
Thrombocytopenia; purpura; regional lymphadenopathy
Anaphylaxis and anaphylactoid reactions have been reported as well as related phenomena such as angioneurotic edema (including peripheral or facial edema) and bronchial spasm in individuals with or without an allergic history.
arthritis; arthralgia; myalgia
encephalitis; encephalopathy; measles inclusion body encephalitis (MIBE); subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE); Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS); acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM); febrile convulsions; afebrile convulsions or seizures; ataxia; polyneuritis; polyneuropathy; ocular palsies; paresthesia
pneumonia; pneumonitis; sore throat; cough; rhinitis
Stevens-Johnson syndrome; erythema multiforme; urticaria; rash; measles-like rash; pruritis
Local reactions including burning/stinging at injection site; wheal and flare; redness (erythema); swelling; induration; tenderness; vesiculation at injection site.
Special Senses — Ear
nerve deafness; otitis media
Special Senses — Eye
retinitis; optic neuritis; papillitis; retrobulbar neuritis; conjunctivitis
For studies, reports and more information on the risks associated with the MMR vaccine, see my Measles page.
6. We do not want the ingredients of the MMR vaccine injected into our child.
You can find a list of the ingredients used in both of the available MMR vaccines HERE.
When our bodies are infected with a virus, the virus enters our body through the mouth, nose, eyes, or openings in our skin. Once they enter our body, they latch on and start reproducing. From there they travel to other organs and tissues in our body. Our immune systems are far more complicated than an antibody response against a foreign invader. For example, if a virus enters our body through the mouth or nose, it has to pass through our body’s natural defenses against disease: mucous, tonsils, the thymus, our lymph nodes, vessels and spleen all help to protect our body against disease.
In contrast, vaccines bypass our body’s natural barriers and elicit an imbalanced immune response, which is why immunity from vaccines is not always effective and doesn’t confer life-long immunity like a wild virus (and why we need booster shots to continue to prevent disease once we are vaccinated).
Not only is the virus or bacteria strain in the vaccine bypassing our body’s natural barriers, the other ingredients in the vaccine are as well. While it’s true that many of these chemicals and toxins are found in the food we eat and the air we breathe, when we ingest or breathe them in in the natural way, they are passing through our body’s barriers. Our body works to absorb and clear them slowly.
I wouldn’t liquify my pear in a blender and inject it with a needle into my body.
7. My doctor has not given me a reason to get the MMR. In fact, no doctor or scientist has given me a good enough reason yet.
One of the main reasons vaccination is often recommended is to keep up “herd immunity”. Even if I believed herd immunity worked when applied to vaccination (which I don’t), I’m not the type to sacrifice my child for “the greater good”. My general thought-process when someone brings up herd immunity is, Wait… you want me to subject my child to all of those ingredients, potential side effects and reactions, based on a few studies that when looked at in depth don’t actually say anything- so that the neighbor kid doesn’t get a rash for a few days?
Here is a list of studies that the CDC lists on their “Concerns about Autism” page (presumably to show that vaccines are safe and don’t lead to autism):
This list is intended to show that vaccines are safe and not connected with autism. Yet here is what is on the list of 9 studies:
The first study listed looked at exposure to antibody-stimulating proteins (also known as antigens) in vaccines. The antigen in the vaccine is the specific virus or bacteria. For example, the antigens in the MMR vaccine are measles, mumps and rubella. The study did not look at any other part of vaccines. Not the preservatives. Not the formaldehyde. Not the adjuvants (like aluminum). Just the strain of the virus or bacteria itself.
Four studies on the list look at the MMR vaccine specifically (even though this research is supposed to prove that vaccines- not just the MMR vaccine- are safe).
The first study that mentions the MMR vaccine is the well-known and much-quoted Danish study. Ahh, the Danish study. If you look at the list of authors listed under the Danish study you will see the name Poul Thorsen. Here’s what the government has to say about an author of a study that they themselves endorse to prove vaccine safety (from https://oig.hhs.gov/fraud/fugitives/profiles.asp)
OIG Fugitive: Poul Thorsen
- From approximately February 2004 until February 2010, Poul Thorsen executed a scheme to steal grant money awarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC had awarded grant money to Denmark for research involving infant disabilities, autism, genetic disorders, and fetal alcohol syndrome. CDC awarded the grant to fund studies of the relationship between autism and the exposure to vaccines, the relationship between cerebral palsy and infection during pregnancy, and the relationship between developmental outcomes and fetal alcohol exposure.
- Thorsen worked as a visiting scientist at CDC, Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, before the grant was awarded.
- The initial grant was awarded to the Danish Medical Research Council. In approximately 2007, a second grant was awarded to the Danish Agency for Science, Technology, and Innovation. Both agencies are governmental agencies in Denmark. The research was done by the Aarhaus University and Odense University Hospital in Denmark.
- Thorsen allegedly diverted over $1 million of the CDC grant money to his own personal bank account. Thorsen submitted fraudulent invoices on CDC letterhead to medical facilities assisting in the research for reimbursement of work allegedly covered by the grants. The invoices were addressed to Aarhaus University and Sahlgrenska University Hospital. The fact that the invoices were on CDC letterhead made it appear that CDC was requesting the money from Aarhaus University and Sahlgrenska University Hospital although the bank account listed on the invoices belonged to Thorsen.
- In April 2011, Thorsen was indicted on 22 counts of Wire Fraud and Money Laundering.
- According to bank account records, Thorsen purchased a home in Atlanta, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, an Audi automobile, and a Honda SUV with funds that he received from the CDC grants.
- Thorsen is currently in Denmark and is awaiting extradition to the United States.
Should we trust a study co-authored by this guy?? The CDC apparently thinks we should.
The next study that compared what age autistic kids had been vaccinated at compared with similar aged non-autistic kids.
Results- Similar proportions of case and control children were vaccinated by the recommended age or shortly after (ie, before 18 months) and before the age by which atypical development is usually recognized in children with autism (ie, 24 months). Vaccination before 36 months was more common among case children than control children, especially among children 3 to 5 years of age, likely reflecting immunization requirements for enrollment in early intervention programs.
In other words, kids who had autism were vaccinated around the same age as their peers who didn’t have autism. So getting vaccinated at a certain age doesn’t cause autism. Yep, people actually spent money and time researching that.
The third study looked at the presence of measles virus RNA in bowel tissue in children with autism and gastrointestinal tract (GI) disorders compared to children with GI disorders who didn’t have autism. The most obvious issue with this study is that ALL of the children were vaccinated and ALL of the children had GI disorders.
The final study examining the MMR vaccine studies autistic children with regression (when the child is developing typically and then regresses and is eventually diagnosed with autism) compared to autistic children with no regression (children who had atypical development all along). The study says:
This study addressed two questions: First, is there evidence for a ‘regressive phenotype’ of ASD? Second, is regression in ASD associated with the MMR vaccine?
The study admits in the Discussion section that the findings to both questions were “mixed”.
The study also admits:
As predicted, a significantly greater proportion of children with regression had onset following vaccination, as compared to children without regression.
However they then go on to explain that the age of an autism diagnosis generally happens later in children with regression which explains why it is more likely to follow vaccination.
ALL of the rest of the studies look at thimerosal in vaccines. That’s it. Thimerosal isn’t even in most childhood vaccines anymore and it was never in the MMR vaccines. And if you want to examine those studies for yourself you’ll see several flaws in them as well. But that’s for another post.
Some evidence, huh?
8. My instinct told me to.
Wait… I chose not to vaccinate my children against measles because of… Instinct?
What does instinct have to do with anything, and why would we base such an important decision on it?
For us, it had everything to do with it.
It started when I was about 8 months pregnant and a friend of mine mentioned that she was skipping one or two vaccines from the recommended schedule for her kids.
I remember thinking, You can do that?
That’s when I started researching. I talked to doctors. I talked to friends who vaccinated. I talked to friends who didn’t vaccinate. I read studies. I read the CDC’s Pink Book.
At first, we decided to follow the alternative schedule in Dr. Sears’ book, The Vaccine Book.
We took our daughter for her first vaccinations at two months old. The doctor breezed in the room. I gathered my courage, prepared for a lengthy discussion about the risks and benefits of vaccination.
“We were thinking of starting out with just a few…” I started.
“Let’s start with DTap, polio and HIB,” the Dr. said. “They come in a combo vax called Pentacel, so it’s just one shot. Sound good?”
I agreed quickly, relieved that he wasn’t pushing any of the others for the time being.
My daughter showed no outwards signs of an adverse reaction. We vaccinated her again at her 4 month appointment and at her 6 month appointment. The shot itself didn’t bother me. She hardly cried with the needle poked her skin. I breastfed her immediately after. I thought I was doing the right thing.
But it felt so wrong.
I don’t believe mothers have instincts for no reason. I hear so many moms say, “I felt so awful about my poor baby getting shots. I didn’t want to do it. It just didn’t feel right. But I know I’m doing what’s best for her.”
But how do I know I’m doing what’s best for her? What studies have I read? What research have I done? What if my instinct is trying to tell me something?
9. There is some evidence that wild measles could be beneficial.
Several studies show how having measles can be beneficial, such as this one which states an associated between a negative history of measles and “immunoreactive diseases, sebaceous skin diseases, degenerative diseases of bone and cartilage, and certain tumours” later in life.
A study done in 1985 showed that having the measles before college-age reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease later in life. This study was confirmed in 2012, when researchers in Canada stated that measles infection reduces a risk of developing Parkinson’s disease later in life by 35%.
One study found a “large reduction” in the risk of atopy in children in Africa. (What is atopy and how is it different than allergies?)
In women who have had wild measles infection and breastfeed, antibodies are passed through the milk, giving their infants stronger protection against the disease than if they had just been vaccinated for it.
Having measles confers life-long immunity.
As with any vaccine, parents need to research deeper than just a few media articles before making their decision.
It’s not about popular opinion- it’s about what’s best for our children. Current research, recommendations, doctor’s advice, gut instinct, family history, our children’s personal history (however small), risk of short-term consequences from disease and from the vaccine, and risk of long-term consequences from the disease and the vaccine… all of these are things we considered when looking at the MMR vaccine.
So the next time a media article blames the “anti-vaccination movement”, or uneducated parents, do a little more research. And remember: people used to think the world was flat, people were imprisoned for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun (instead of the other way around), and doctors used to doubt the relationship between tobacco and disease.
See Part 2 of Why We Declined the MMR Vaccine (Mumps) HERE.
*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and I am not giving medical advice. These are reasons why we personally declined the MMR vaccine.