Earlier this month, the Milwaukee City Council appointed Dr. Patricia McManus to head the city’s health department — the highest health-related position available. McManus is a registered nurse with a doctorate degree in urban studies, and serves as the president of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. The vote came following the resignation of Bevan Baker amid accusations Baker had failed to provide follow-up services for the families of thousands of Milwaukee-area children who had tested positive for lead.
In one of her first interviews as head of the Milwaukee Health Department, McManus turned medical professionals’ heads by calling into question the link between vaccines and autism. When asked whether the common MMR vaccine which protects against measles, mumps and rubella could cause autism, McManus replied she doesn’t “think the answer is there yet,” going on to argue “some people still believe [vaccines cause autism]” and vaccinating children is a decision “families will have to make on their own.”
While she has been quick to clarify she is not advising parents against vaccination, McManus also argues more research is necessary before discounting any link between vaccines and health issues or autism.
“I would like to have more research done on the whole issue in the first place, rather than just tying it to one thing, because I’m not sure that’s it,” McManus said. “It usually isn’t. And I think that’s what happens when you try to nail it directly to one thing, such as the vaccine.”
McManus isn’t wrong when asking for more research to be done regarding the side effects of vaccines and other medical treatments. Oftentimes, pharmaceutical companies fail to develop cheaper or healthier alternatives for drugs or vaccines simply because the current alternative does the job and makes them money. McManus is wrong, however, in using her newfound platform to immediately open a can of worms which has long been closed by medical researchers nationwide.
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The MMR vaccine has not been found, by years of intensive research, to cause autism. Respected institutions — from the likes of the Centers of Disease Control to the University of Wisconsin medical school to the National Institutes of Health — have long since established there is nothing to support the hypothesis cited by anti-vaxxers. So when health officials in prominent, public roles make comments suggesting the research is wrong or there are two sides to an incredibly one-sided argument, those already against vaccinations see it as justification for their irresponsible and dangerous decisions.
In 2014, the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement revealed themselves in California. With vaccination rates on the decline statewide, what was a typical December day in Disneyland turned into a breeding ground for measles infecting park visitors. Over the course of a few months at the beginning of 2015, there were at least 159 documented cases of the measles.
While California as a whole had a vaccination rate of about 93 percent, communities scattered throughout the state had a much lower rate. The disparity between communities’ rate of vaccination resulted in a breakdown of herd immunity, or the ability of a disease to gain a foothold in an area with high vaccination rates. Therefore, medical experts concluded the veracity of the outbreak can be largely contributed to the relatively low vaccination rates in certain California communities.
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In Wisconsin, children need to be up-to-date on their vaccinations to attend public schools. There are, however, exemptions offered for medical reasons and personal or religious beliefs. These exemptions resulted in 4.3 percent of schoolchildren in Wisconsin seeking vaccination waivers for personal reasons for the 2015-16 school year. Waivers have been on an upward trend in recent years, meaning more families are choosing not to vaccinate their children.
Dr. James Conway, a pediatrician with UW Health, states families choosing not to vaccinate often don’t deny all vaccines — only the ones they see as potentially harmful for their children. This not only blatantly defies all scientific research done on links between autism and other health problems and vaccines, but it leaves the unvaccinated children vulnerable to easily preventable illnesses.
Not only are the unvaccinated children vulnerable, but adults who have not been vaccinated recently who are interacting with these children either at school or elsewhere can be susceptible to contracting otherwise rare illnesses.
Vaccinating children is integral to ensuring the general welfare of the public and the wellbeing of all children. It is time to expel the notion there are somehow two sides to the argument about the fabricated link between autism and vaccines, and this starts with health officials nationwide using their platforms to preach medical fact instead of medical fiction.
Aly Niehans ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and intending to major in journalism.