Allison Winnike

Allison Winnike

Too many parents have been hearing the wrong stories. As Texas schools begin a new school year amid an outbreak of measles, let’s start telling more useful stories about the power of vaccinations.

Reams of studies showing the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations have not convinced the small but growing number of Texas families who resist vaccinating their children. Some continue to believe in the debunked and withdrawn study that claimed the measles vaccine was associated with a higher risk of autism. They still doubt the many well-conducted studies that have since proven the measles vaccine does not cause autism. Though the state’s vaccination rates are high overall, pockets of low vaccinations can lead to an outbreak – such as the measles outbreak in El Paso. In a New York City neighborhood with low vaccination rates, the number of measles cases reached well into the hundreds in recent months.

The danger is higher for schoolchildren, especially for those with siblings who are too young for their first measles vaccination. Some of their classmates cannot be vaccinated against measles because of serious health issues, such as autoimmune issues or chemotherapy treatment.

Unfortunately, instead of embracing the science, some parents turn to social media with its unverified stories of vaccine reactions. These tales understandably connect with protective parental emotions. Many parents lack the fear of vaccine-preventable illness because they have never experienced those illnesses.

In many ways, vaccination has been its own worst enemy: It has prevented many diseases so effectively that there are relatively few people to tell the very real stories of terrible disease-caused injuries.

Fortunately, some people deeply affected by these diseases have recently come forward to protect a new generation of children.

Ruediger Schoenbohm wrote on the website Vaccines Today about his son Max who caught measles as a baby, when he was too young to be vaccinated. Max seemed to recover, but then strange and increasingly serious symptoms started when he was in third grade. Eventually doctors diagnosed this as SSPE, or Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis, a rare but always fatal complication of measles.

“In April of 2006, our boy said goodbye forever,” Schoenbohm wrote. “An unexpected thrust of brain inflammation put him into a vegetative state. Within hours, he lost everything he had learned during his young life. His last words were: ‘I don’t know who you are.’ It’s going to haunt us for the rest of our lives.”

Max died in 2014. His father pleads with parents to vaccinate their children to prevent this from happening to other children.

In 2016, researchers reported that SSPE was more common than previously thought. Instead of afflicting one in 100,000 children with measles, the analysis found, the number was one in 1,387 for preschoolers and one in 600 for those who caught the virus before the age of 1.

On the Encephalitis Society’s website, a man named Gary describes developing encephalitis from the measles he caught in 1950, when he was 8. He was in a coma for two weeks. “I had to learn how to walk again,” he wrote, “remember occurrences from my past and increase my very limited vocabulary.”

The Chicago Tribune recently interviewed Marsha Engle-Reinecke, who was left nearly deaf by the measles she contracted as a child. While in college, she realized that her hearing impairment would block her dream of becoming a teacher.

“How different my life would have been,” she said.

Texas health officials have confirmed 21 cases of measles in the state so far this year. With the exception of 2013, that’s more than previous years dating back to 2006. And 2019 still has a way to go.

Instead of dismissing the influence of experience, let’s harness it by amplifying the voices of people with real stories about vaccine-preventable disease-caused injuries – stories to remind new generations that measles is not “just a childhood disease” but a dangerous and extremely contagious virus that can cause disability or death. These are the stories to share with friends and acquaintances who erroneously speak about vaccines.

Allison Winnike, J.D., is the President and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a statewide non-profit organization that aims to create a community free from vaccine-preventable diseases by educating the community, advocating for evidence-based public policy, and supporting immunization best practices.

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