As a Nation, we tend to fixate on the novel and the sensational.
We sometimes trade the alluring for the important, often resulting in unforeseen and adverse consequences.
America has become consumed by a whirlwind of incessant media coverage and anxiety over the recent outbreaks of ebola around the world. We at times lose sight of the fact that, in the entire history of ebola, there have been a total of four cases in the US, resulting in only one death. The public has become seemingly oblivious to much older and far more detrimental culprits to the American health. Society is ravaged with morbidity and mortality at the hands of everything from alcoholism and tobacco addiction to cancer and heart disease, even the deceptive seasonal flu.
Everyone catches the occasional flu, but according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in the past year, there have been 9,632 hospitalizations related to influenza in the United States. The proportion of flu-related deaths during the 2013-2014 flu season hovered around 6 percent of all deaths, and as of August 2014, more than 105 children died over the past season from flu-related illnesses.
Even these staggering statistics illustrating the devastating potential of the “flu” aren’t enough to persuade most of the American public to get their vaccinations, as only 46% of Americans had received a vaccination protecting against influenza in 2014. The truly saddening thing about this particular situation is that many of these deaths could have been prevented.
The unfortunate ramifications of the low levels of vaccination has contributed to widespread illness in California. On June 13th, 2014, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) declared a whooping cough epidemic where a total of 8,749 cases of have been reported, 312 of those cases have been hospitalized, and 3 infants have died.
Humboldt County is especially impacted, with 95 cases and the 4th highest rate of whooping cough of all the counties in California, coming behind only Sonoma, Napa, and Marin.
“Vaccinations have been one of the most important things in preventing disease starting at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Ron Largosa, an epidemiologist for the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services. “Diseases that were common players and related to causes of death and illness, one hundred years later are virtually nonexistent.”
However, increasingly low levels of vaccination stymy efforts to reduce the threats of preventable diseases even further. This trend in vaccinations is dramatic in Humboldt County, with increasing amounts of parents deciding not to vaccinate.
Following the development of vaccines to prevent harmful diseases, children entering the school system would largely be vaccinated. In fact, there were “vaccination drives” at schools. However, since 2000, the vaccination rate amongst Kindergarteners in Humboldt county has dramatically declined.
At the beginning of this school year only 73.3 percent of kids had received all the vaccines required by the California Department of Public Health. Only Nevada County was worse, with a rate of 72.3 percent.
While the vaccination rate statewide has declined by roughly two percent since 2000, Humboldt County’s fell by more than 18 percent.
Why the substantial drop? Vaccines, after all, are considered to be one of the important and successful medical achievements in human history. And yet, according to the California Department of Public Health, there has been a dramatic rise in “Personal Belief Exemptions.” That is, when parents choose to not vaccinate their children because vaccines are against their personal beliefs. However, an individual exercising their personal beliefs can affect the health of an entire community.
“Herd Immunity” is the idea that when a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. This can help protect individuals who are not eligible to receive certain vaccinations; like infants and pregnant women.
It is estimated by the CDC that an 85 to 90 percent rate of vaccination is considered the threshold for herd immunity for diseases as measles, smallpox, diphtheria, and rubella. Other diseases, like whooping cough, require an even higher immunization rate to keep the whole community safe. Due to the rates of vaccination below the Herd Immunity threshold, Humboldt County is at an increased risk for possible outbreak of debilitating and fatal diseases.
“The students who are not immunized are actually depending on the students who are immunized to keep them safe,” AHS School Nurse Marilyn Thibeau.
There are many causes of declining rates of immunizations. These can include misinformation, a lack of education of the dangers of these preventable diseases, and people feeling that it is simply unnecessary because we have not recently had a major outbreak publicized by the media.
AHS School Nurse Thibeau explains,“We know that when the population hasn’t seen the devastation of these diseases, they’re not as worried about them ever happening.”
Immunizations are fundamental to modern public health management. If we don’t see a reversal of the current downward immunization trend, it is inevitable that we will see an increase in destructive yet preventable diseases.