In the years before the development of the measles vaccine, about 500 people per year died from measles according to Dr. Jennifer Ashton (a medical correspondent for CBS News.) After the vaccine was introduced, the disease was "pretty much 99% eradicated." She went on to note that:
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports it's already seen 98 cases in 2011 — double the average number for an entire year. When we see cases today in this country, they are almost entirely brought in from other parts of the world, and the people who get sick here are those who are largely not vaccinated."
It's the issue of vaccination - and the increase in recent years of parents opting not to vaccinate their children - that is at the heart of Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus - A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, an uncompromising look at how unfounded claims by an English researcher hoping to market a reformulated measles virus and working with a law firm looking to sue vaccine manufacturers spiralled into a movement centred on the idea that childhood vaccines cause autism, leading thousands of parents to leave their children unvaccinated.
Mnookin, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair Magazine and author of the excellent exegesis of the Jayson Blair scandal, Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, was himself a new father while working on Panic Virus so the issue of what might or might not be a threat to a child was more than just an academic question for him. Understanding the fears that keep new parents up at night allows him to be sympathetic to many of the parents who fall for anti-vaccine movement's misinformation while clearly condemning those who are pushing the anti-vaccine agenda for their own gain.
Mnookin also looks at some of the unintended consequences that the reduction in vaccination has had, such as the loss of what's known as "herd immunity." Heard immunity occurs when enough members of a community have been immunized that those viruses are unable to take hold and spread to others in the community who are too young to be vaccinated, are allergic to a component of the vaccine or otherwise are medically unable to be vaccinated.
He introduces us to a family whose daughter was too young to receive a pertussis vaccine, but became ill because of the loss of herd immunity in her community. In a few stark pages, he takes us through the course of her disease, letting us see the devastation it wreaked on her small body, and the helplessness of her parents as their infant daughter became so ill that for two weeks they weren't even able to hold her.