The Changing Politics and Consistent Science of Vaccinations

The recent outbreak of measles in the United States launched a national debate on vaccinations that has spread rapidly throughout the media and even involved some of the likely 2016 presidential candidates. A Gallup survey and other recent developments make clear that it’s a public discussion that we need to continue.

The Gallup survey, released earlier this month, revealed that “a slight majority of Americans, 54%, say it is extremely important that parents get their children vaccinated, down from the 64% who held this belief 14 years ago. Another 30% call it ‘very important’ – unchanged from 2001.” That 10 percent drop should be a major concern, as should the fact that a slim majority of Americans understand how important vaccinations are.

As a physician and medical researcher who has spent years studying infectious diseases — and now as President of Stony Brook University, a major research institution — I’m struck by a number of aspects of the debate and by the vital need to rebuild public support for one of the most crucial methods of improving public health.

During the 20th century, life expectancy for Americans increased by more than 30 years — an extraordinary achievement that we now, too easily, take for granted. Crucial to that advance was the development of vaccines and their remarkable impact — especially the eradication of smallpox, elimination of polio, and control of measles, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, and various types of flu, among other diseases. Polio alone killed 3,000 Americans and left 21,000 paralyzed in a single year (1952).

The debate surrounding measles may seem harmless, since there’s no comparison between the horror of Ebola and the symptoms of measles. Yet measles are far more contagious. One of the striking revelations of Ebola was that household members who had not come into bodily contact with —> Read More