When it comes to advancements in healthcare, it’s alarming to see a string of developing countries listed ahead of a major American city. Yet, due to a recent precipitous decline in immunization rates, Seattle, known as one of the country’s smartest cities, now lags behind numerous third-world countries for polio vaccination rates among children. Only 82% of kindergarteners in Seattle have been vaccinated for polio, which is well below immunization rates of one-year-olds in Algeria (95%), El Salvador (92%), Rwanda (98%), and Yemen (88%), to name a few.
The issue is more pervasive than just Seattle. Throughout the state of Washington, vaccination rates for polio, among other diseases, sit far below the minimum amount required to achieve “herd immunity.” When 95% of a community is vaccinated against polio, for example, unvaccinated individuals such as infants and those medically prohibited from the immunization, will be protected. Clearly, Seattle no longer benefits from such a defense.
For parents who opt out of vaccinating their children, their primary reason is philosophical. Despite the proven safety and effectiveness of polio vaccines, some parents are misguided about vaccine side effects or view the treatment as unnecessary. Ironically, the success of vaccines may be to blame. Some parents are blinded by the effectiveness, have become accustomed to few outbreaks, and are unfamiliar with the dangers these diseases present.
Using polio as an example, many parents incorrectly assume their child is protected because the disease was eradicated from the U.S. in 1979, but this is not a guarantee. The threat of polio exists from outside sources, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan where there are still active cases. Further, most parents opting out of the polio vaccine have never lived through the threat of disease and are not fully aware of how devastating a prognosis it can be. Prior to the vaccine, polio crippled more than 35,000 people in the U.S. annually.
Because of past successes with vaccines, complacency with immunization rates does pose a serious threat. By comparison, developing countries that lack healthcare infrastructure have made significant improvements. Living in a country where the memory of polio is fresh, and other vaccine-preventable diseases remain active, more parents are vaccinating their children.
As complacency sets in, healthcare professionals should remind parents that the threat of polio and other preventable diseases is real. Vaccine-preventable diseases could return at any time. While attention has been given to improving vaccination rates abroad, we must not forget how important it is to maintain herd immunity within our own borders.