Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: "Vaccines Save Lives"

Posted on February 16, 2015

From smallpox to polio, we have learned in the United States that vaccines save lives. And yet a troubling number of parents are not vaccinating their children. 

Here in the United States, we are now experiencing a large outbreak of measles, a disease for which we have a vaccine.

Last week, the Senate health committee that I chair held a hearing on the re-emergence of vaccine-preventable diseases, to talk about what is causing this outbreak in our country and why some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children.

Last September the committee held a hearing about Ebola, which was spreading rapidly and had produced a near panic in the U.S. In response, Congress appropriated more than $5 billion to fight the spread of the virus. 

The impact of efforts to fight Ebola is that the number of Ebola cases is declining. At the same time, here in the U.S. we are experiencing a large outbreak of a disease for which we do have a vaccine. 

Measles used to sicken up to 4 million Americans each year—and many believed that it was an unpreventable childhood illness—but the introduction of a vaccine in 1963 changed everything. 

Measles was declared eliminated—meaning absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months—from the United States in 2000, and yet, we have already seen more cases of measles in the first two months of 2015 than we would in a typical year. 

What is standing between healthy children and deadly diseases?

It ought to be vaccinations. But too many parents are turning away from sound science.

Sound science is this: Vaccines save lives. 

They save the lives of the people who are vaccinated. They protect the lives of the vulnerable around them—like infants and those who are ill – when enough of us around the vulnerable are vaccinated to create “herd immunity.”

They protect us from the ravages of awful diseases like polio, which invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis. Or whooping cough, which causes thick mucus to accumulate in the airways and can make it difficult for infants to breathe. Or, diphtheria, a bacterial infection that affects the mucous membranes of your nose and throat and can, in advanced stages, damage your heart, kidneys and nervous system. 

It is troubling that a growing number of parents are not following the recommendations doctors and public health professionals have been making for decades, but instead, are relying on false information provided by discredited reports found on the Internet.

 One infamous study published in the Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield alleged a connection between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. There is still information from this study on the Internet today, even though the study was thoroughly discredited and retracted by Lancet after the study was determined to be fraudulent, leading to the revocation of Wakefield’s medical license. 

What Congress can do to help solve this problem and prevent something like this from ever happening again is use our bully pulpit to dispel the notion that vaccines cause more problems than they solve and make sure our state health officials are actively communicating the right information to parents.

The message is simple: Vaccines save lives.