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If you are looking for the perfect present to give kids this holiday season, what about immunity from a range of deadly communicable diseases? It is cheap and widely available at any good pediatricians’ office or vaccination clinic. Even so, this wonderful present is spurned by a growing number of parents in America and Europe.
A big reason that more children than ever will be around to enjoy the holiday season worldwide this year is because vaccination rates for a range of diseases have shot up over the last few decades. In the case of measles, the World Health Organization suggests 16 percent of infants were vaccinated against the disease in 1980 compared with 85 percent in 2010. The results speak for themselves: In 1980, measles killed 2.6 million people a year; that number was down to 139,000 in 2010. And that’s thanks not least to the efforts of the Global Alliance for Vaccines & Immunizations, which buys vaccines at bulk and sells them on to developing countries using a sliding price scale that depends on the country’s income. GAVI has helped improve vaccination rates significantly even in some of the world’s most challenging countries. Yemen, for example, started a rotavarius vaccination campaign with GAVI support in 2012.
But for all that Western aid has helped in increasing global coverage, vaccination rates are going the opposite direction in the West itself. Amanda Glassman and colleagues at the Center for Global Development developed a measure of global performance looking at the sustained level of vaccination against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus (the DPT shot) over the 1980-2010 period. On that ranking, the U.S. came in No. 24 behind countries that include Slovakia, Hungary, and Albania. France ranked No. 31, and the U.K. No. 91—behind Gambia and Eritrea.
Unvaccinated kids are concentrated within those countries, which considerably increases the risk of outbreaks. A lot of rich Californians with kids in private schools have managed to clump together with enough like-minded fellow thinkers to create large reservoirs of unvaccinated kids. The opt-out rate in private schools in the state doubled from 2004 to 2011. There are now 110 private schools across California where more than half of the kids skipped some or all vaccinations, and 247 private schools saw vaccination rates below 90 percent, the threshold critical to minimizing the potential for disease outbreak.
Declining vaccination rates have had the inevitable result. In 2011, according to health economist Victoria Fan, France had more than 14,000 cases of measles—the highest since 2000 and considerably more than the total number of cases in all of the Americas that year. Latin America eliminated measles in 2002, but because of dropping vaccination coverage in the North, the U.S. is importing measles cases from Europe and threatens to reexport them to South America. The U.S. has also seen outbreaks of meningitis despite the availability of an infant vaccine since 1987. And in the first nine months of 2012, the U.S. suffered more cases of whooping cough than it had in decades, with 25,000 cases and 13 deaths.
Parents who don’t vaccinate risk their own children’s lives—but also those of newborns too young for vaccination, kids of other vaccine-deniers, and older people for whom vaccines have proven ineffective. And they slow efforts to wipe out diseases completely, so that no one has to go to the bother and expense of getting the vaccines that these selfish, misguided, or ignorant parents are already leaving on the shelf. Think smallpox—it killed 300 million-plus people last century, but no one is vaccinated against it today because a global campaign succeeded in wiping it out.
Insanely, in a country that mandates car seats for all kids, parents in 20 states, including California, are allowed to opt out of vaccination programs for “philosophical reasons.” And the situation is the same across much of Europe. Whereas a child out of a car seat who gets involved in a crash is only a danger to herself, an unvaccinated kid is a danger to others. The public policy case for mandating vaccination is far stronger than that for car seats.
Meanwhile, no child whose parents have shown the practical love of turning up at the clinic and no vaccine worker who has braved the struggle to set up that clinic should be thwarted for lack of a few dollars to finance the vaccines. (For an example of that bravery, look no further than the eight polio vaccination workers murdered last week in Pakistan, where the Taliban has opposed the campaign.)
So if you’ve already got your kids vaccinated, why not help a kid in another country get his or her full set? Donate to child vaccination efforts through Unicef or such groups as the Lions and Rotary clubs that have been longtime supporters of global vaccination efforts. Meanwhile, if you haven’t got your own kids vaccinated, here’s hoping an elf repeatedly whacks you with the lump of coal in your stocking until you repent.