Like a lot of people, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took a chance when she got her first booster.
When she had it, there were no health warnings about the vaccine.
“At that point, I was 30 years old and I did not ask for a mention of it in my medical records or in my childhood immunization history,” Schuchat said during a briefing on childhood vaccinations. “I definitely have regrets that I didn’t ask that.”
Yet for mothers, it’s still a tough question to ask.
Nearly five years later, Schuchat is sharing her takeaway from the “The Vaccine Consensus,” a study published Monday by the CDC and the World Health Organization that aims to help people better understand both arguments that vaccines are safe and that the proof is in the protection.
The study, which looked at more than 125,000 children born from 2005 to 2008, found that over the five-year period, the proportion of children with a confirmed or suspected vaccine-preventable childhood disease was similar to previous years. But a different picture emerges when one examines the newly vaccinated children.
According to the study, which was done in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, immunization against measles, mumps and rubella were dropping for all age groups between 1 and 6. But among the group of children between 1 and 5 with a booster – doses given within the first three years of life to keep kids healthy against measles, mumps and rubella – the decline appears to be more dramatic. The percentage of children with confirmed or suspected vaccines-preventable diseases declined from 12.6 percent before vaccines were given to 13.4 percent after. Among children between 5 and 14, the drop is from 17.6 percent to 16.7 percent. (There was no change among 5- to 9-year-olds.)
Why the decline?
“It’s not enough to just say, ‘Well, all we hear is, ‘This is a safety issue.’ Because once a vaccine is in use, there is still an assumption in everyone’s mind that, ‘Oh, the vaccines are safe.’ And the reduction in rates since 2008 is due to an individual preference,” Schuchat said.
The impact of a disease-preventable disease, such as measles, on a country’s population or economy has been assessed in several government reports, but recent ones put in a new perspective.
A report last year by Johns Hopkins University and Pew Research concluded that the vaccine program had reduced global measles cases from 500,000 per year to less than 4,000 since 2000, and based on statistics from 2000-2013, that means annual fatalities for measles dropped from 120,000 to 7,800.
“I’m sure there were many good reasons at the time that we started the program, but it’s certainly taken a while for people to realize that immunization has not led to herd immunity yet and that we need to have ongoing investment in those vaccines,” said Gil Chavez, principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins, who led the research.
Maternal vaccination rates were also affected.
Schuchat, who served as the chief of the CDC’s Division of Women’s and Children’s Health from 2011 to 2015, recalls traveling to Africa in a van in sub-Saharan Africa. A woman with three children who had been vaccinated against tetanus pulled into the van, waving her arm.
“I don’t want to sound creepy or kooky, but there was this woman, this hippie mom with three kids who was really obviously unvaccinated,” Schuchat said. “And she goes, ‘Oh, you guys must have a really big family because you have all these different things.’ And I’m just like, ‘Really?’”
Vaccination rates were usually high in rural areas, Schuchat said, and the female-over-male imbalance is also seen in immunization rates. She also said certain infectious diseases had disproportionately been reported among male adults.
Asked to comment on the recent, widely reported case of measles in France, Schuchat said, “What we should know and what we know is not that the vaccine is not safe, but what we know is, at least if we’re talking about the children that are still under active disease, are they going to die?”