Vaccine safety: The state of vaccinations in California and the debates around vaccine safety
Percentage of kindergarten students with all required immunizations.
Nevada County 81.7%
Placer County 92.3%
Yuba County 92.0%
Sierra County 94.9%
Plumas County 91.2%
Sacramento County 93.5%
(Sutter County had lowest percentage at 78.2%, while Colusa County had highest percentage at 98.6%).
Source: California Department of Public Health
Following the removal of personal belief exemptions in the state of California, as noted by Nevada County Public Health Officer Ken Cutler, medical exemptions for vaccinations increased with more than 4,000 kindergartners becoming medically exempt in the 2017-18 school year.
Some in the California State Legislature, like Sen. Richard Pan, are trying “to curb fraudulent medical exemptions for vaccines” and increase vaccination rates in the state by supporting Senate Bill 276.
On April 24, the Senate Health Committee held a hearing on the bill, which has been moved forward to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The doctor-turned-representative said he hopes Senate Bill 276 passes despite receiving death threats in previous years for promoting vaccine safety legislation.
Pan has recently been attacked for taking over $95,000 from pharmaceutical companies. The senior director of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — the industry’s main trade group — said the organization is not taking a position on Senate Bill 276, even though they have formerly supported vaccinations.
For decades, vaccine companies were not making much profit from their vaccines until recently, according to The Atlantic. While it’s difficult to know the profits of vaccine companies because all the information is not public, the World Health Organization estimated the vaccine market value at $24 billion in 2014 and to reach $100 billion by 2025.
A DEBUNKED THEORY
People have been skeptical of vaccines since Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine in 1798. After vaccinating his family, Jenner was ostracized from his community.
More recently, vaccine skepticism has significantly increased, some linking things like autism to certain vaccinations. In 1998, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues authored a paper claiming such link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination and autism. There was subsequently a significant drop in vaccinations from individuals concerned of such correlation in the Western world.
Wakefield and his colleagues, however, were later discredited when subsequent studies found the correlation to be false. What’s more, while conducting the study, Wakefield didn’t disclose financial ties to lawyers helping parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.
In 2010, the publication that asserted Wakefield’s findings retracted his study, finding the results “incorrect and contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation.”
Still, Wakefield’s skepticism persisted, as he later directed the film, Vaxxed, warning people of the dangers associated with vaccinations. One of the doctors skeptical of vaccines in the film, Dr. William Thompson, was said to eventually debunk a previous paper he published claiming a link between vaccinations and autism in the African American community, according to what his colleague, Dr. Brian Hooker, wrote for the Focus for Health Foundation. (The foundation is working to combat the rise of chronic illness around the world.)
Today, people who believe vaccinations are safe point to how vaccines have eradicated some viruses and saved millions of lives in the 20th century. Before the measles vaccination was widely available in 1963, 48,000 people were hospitalized, 4,000 developed encephalitis and about 450 died each year, according to the New York Times.
A Vox report on vaccines shows public health organizations support vaccines due to this reason: a long list of viruses, including “diphtheria, bacterial influenza, measles, mumps, rubella and tetanus among others” have been eradicated or controlled by medicine.
Some, however, like Dr. Suzanne Humphries, a nephrologist who left conventional medicine in 2011, argue declining rates of many viral infections, like polio in the 20th century, occurred before the creation of its vaccination.
Science Magazine contests her findings, showing a history of diseases in the United States and displaying evidence as to how vaccines effectively fought them.
There have been concerns about poisoning children with the mercury in vaccinations. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ethlymercury — not the dangerous methylmercury — is found in the preservative thimerosal — a mercury-based preservative often used in vaccinations. However, because of parental concern, thimerosal was recently reduced or entirely removed from many vaccines.
Many parents have also been concerned about the quantity of vaccines injected into children. The Infectious Disease Society of America, however, found that vaccines don’t overwhelm or weaken children’s immune systems.
Del Bigtree, founder of Informed Consent Action Network, a vaccine skeptic nonprofit, said double blind studies, where one individual gets the placebo and the other receives the treatment — the gold standard of research — have not occurred with regard to vaccination testing.
Kayla DeBusk, health program specialist with the Spokane Regional Health District in Washington, said vaccines are rigorously tested.
“They are taking people who have not received the vaccine and comparing it to people who have received the vaccine,” DeBusk told Spokane Public Radio, adding that it would be unethical to expose people to a disease and then give them a placebo.
A recent Yale study found the onset of specific neuropsychiatric disorders to be related to vaccinations, but the authors warned that the loose correlation should be “taken with a grain of salt,” and requires further studies with a larger sample size.
WHAT MOST SCIENTISTS SAY
According to a Pew Research Center study, 86% of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences say children should be required to vaccinate.
Harvard scientists report vaccines are important because herd immunity or community immunity, prevents a disease from spreading through a given area when the vast majority are immunized. They say this is the best outcome when an individual takes a vaccine because it protects many people, inversely causing a public health risk when people don’t vaccinate.
Still, the government has paid a large sum of money for its potential errors. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has made $4 billion in payouts since 1988 to 6,465 petitioners of vaccines, or people who claim some harm by a vaccine.
The allotment of payments, however, “does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused an alleged injury,” according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, an agency within the health and human services department which distributes funding to vaccination petitioners.
The agency said it could not respond to specific cases due to legal constraints, but suggested there are a wide range of grievances from allergic reactions to chronic arthritis and anaphylaxis.
According to a letter from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, “You don’t need to show that the vaccine actually caused the” ailment in order to receive compensation from the program. Rather, if some negative reaction occurs within a certain time frame of getting the vaccination, it is presumed the vaccine caused the injury. Program experts also wrote, “attorneys are eligible for reasonable attorneys’ fees, whether or not the petitioner is awarded compensation by the court, if certain minimal requirements are met.”
They referred to approximations from the Centers for Disease Control, stating that from 2006 to 2017, of the billions of vaccine doses there were 1,157 paid concessions. In other words, they wrote, “for every one million doses of vaccine that were distributed, about one individual was compensated.”
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, after the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act passed in 1988, compensation was paid to families of children injured by vaccinations, and “the number of lawsuits against vaccine makers decreased dramatically.”
An Emory Law Journal report from Mary Holland says the drop in lawsuits is a problem. Holland asserts that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act provides “almost blanket liability from damages from vaccine harms.”
Holland wrote that people should be able to hold vaccine companies directly accountable to protect consumers and improve vaccines.
“Empirical work indicates that leaving courthouse doors open elevates vaccine safety,” she wrote.
Although President Donald Trump has discussed establishing a committee on vaccine safety, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. potentially leading it, a vaccine safety committee already exists. Many scientists believe it to be transparent and effective. Kennedy’s family recently dismissed his vaccine skeptic claims as “tragically wrong.”
HOW PUBLIC OFFICIALS RESPOND
Nevada County school health services coordinator, Sharyn Turner, said that until recently a larger segment of the population had different feelings about vaccinations, believing them to be safe.
“Nobody ever questioned getting a vaccination,” she said. Turner believes acting in a nonjudgmental way, and developing trust, is the best way to teach others about vaccine safety.
“We provide science-based information,” she said. “We have information given to parent groups.”
Ashley Neumann, Nevada County Board of Education member, thinks the message of openness and trust is important, but also needs to be practiced by public officials.
“If public health officials want people to be vaccinated, they need to be more open” to individuals who are skeptical of vaccines, she said.
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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