By Ian MacArthur
The problem of infectious disease has essentially been solved in First World countries. While the citizens of developed nations may suffer outbreaks of influenza from year to year, epidemics of measles, polio, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases no longer pose a major threat to these populations thanks to the development of vaccines and antibiotics. In the United States, the leading causes of death over the last century have transitioned from infectious diseases to lifestyle illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.
The situation in the developing world, however, is drastically different. Each year, around 4 million children below the age of five pass away from viral diseases that could have been prevented by vaccinations. Epidemics of infectious diseases continue to ravage the Third World; making efforts to vaccinate the populations of developing nations is a global health imperative. How might global vaccination campaigns be optimized to prevent large scale disease outbreaks?
Micaela Martinez-Bakker and Kevin Bakker, scientists at the University of Michigan, suggest that such large-scale vaccination efforts should be synced with seasonal fluctuations in birth rates to be most effective in combating infectious diseases. “There are predictable times of the year when we know there are going to be more infants being born, and we hope that in the future this information will be used to control epidemics,” Dr. Martinez-Bakker said.
Referring to large populations of infants as “kindling” for the flames of infectious disease, the duo argues that whenever a population experiences a surge in births, the likelihood of disease outbreak increases since illness can spread among the unvaccinated newborns.
The team studied the birth records of nations in the Northern Hemisphere over the past 78 years to determine the influence that seasonal fluctuations in birth rate have had on the incidence of measles in children. Their findings demonstrated that birth rate can have an extremely significant impact on the severity of a measles outbreak, indicating that vaccination of infants is crucial in preventing the spread of infectious disease. Martinez-Bakker has suggested that efforts by the United Nations to vaccinate children in developing nations should correspond with these surges in birth rate in order to maximize the number of newborns in the vaccination program.
These results should serve as precautionary evidence for citizens of developed nations. The continued immunity of these populations from large-scale outbreaks of diseases, like measles, is dependent on the vaccination of their infants and children. In the United States, an anti-vaccination movement espousing pseudo-scientific claims about the danger of childhood vaccinations has recently garnered support in certain regions of the country. The voice of this group has been amplified by the support of personalities such as Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump.
In September of 2013, an outbreak of measles in Texas was linked to a mega-church that was presided over by a ministry skeptical of vaccine safety. This incident demonstrates the tangible public health threat posed by the anti-vaccine movement. It is imperative that the United States does not grow complacent in the relative absence of infectious disease in its population. Parents must decide to vaccinate their children in order for incidence of these illnesses to remain low. The research of the Bakkers reinforces the importance of childhood vaccination in keeping the population healthy. There is too much progress being made in medicine for the scientific community to have to concern itself with problems that have already been solved due to the carelessness and ignorance of a misinformed public.