They are their own epidemic, a result of the spread of misinformation.
April 12 almost became a national holiday. On that day in 1955, virologist Jonas Salk announced that his polio vaccine was a success.
Salk's vaccine effectively ended one of the worst epidemics in our nation's history. Polio was killing and paralyzing ever more children in the United States and was considered the most dangerous communicable disease. Salk's vaccine allayed the fears of millions of American parents. With one dose, their children were safe.
Two years and 100 million doses later, polio was virtually eradicated in the United States.
Today, nearly six decades after our country celebrated the lifesaving work of this noble scientist, once-eradicated childhood diseases are making a comeback. Diseases like measles and whooping cough are reoccurring because parents choose to ignore decades of scientific research and delay or forego lifesaving vaccinations for their children. The health of Minnesota schoolchildren is at risk because of some parents' misguided fears.
There is a growing epidemic in America -- an epidemic of fear, borne of misinformation about the safety and importance of vaccines.
According to some public health estimates, in parts of the United States, "vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children's diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever," as Amy Wallace put it in a 2009 article. Minnesota's Department of Health has reported more than 1,000 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) since Jan. 1, double the total number of cases reported during 2011.
Pertussis has made a comeback in the United States, especially among unvaccinated children who, according to health officials, are 23 times more likely than those vaccinated to contract this sometimes fatal bacterial infection.
In 2010, California officials declared whooping cough an "epidemic" as they dealt with the worst outbreak in 60 years, including 10 deaths. After waging an intensive vaccination campaign, last year California public health officials reported no cases of pertussis.
Why are parents ignoring scientific evidence and allowing their children to go unvaccinated?
Some families raise concerns with their pediatricians about the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) suggested schedule of immunizations. The perceived rapid succession of immunizations that begins at birth frightens some parents who fear their children's developing immune system will be "overwhelmed." This grass-roots parental movement to alter the CDC's recommended schedule has caught fire in recent years as it has spread via the Internet and social media.
Parents who go online to research the safety and efficacy of innoculation will also encounter myriad myths, half-truths and outright lies about vaccine safety.
It has been nearly two decades since Hollywood and television personalities, with the help of a since-discredited British physician, began scaring parents into bypassing immunizations altogether -- especially the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine -- by spreading misinformation about a perceived link between autism and vaccines. What began as the autism movement's campaign against a vaccination preservative has morphed into a vicious and destructive campaign against vaccines.
This campaign of fear has had real consequences. In 2011, Minnesota had the largest measles outbreak in the nation, with 23 children infected and 14 hospitalized. Those 23 measles cases were more than had been reported during the previous 14 years combined.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, as of January 2011, only 58.1 percent of Minnesota children aged 24 to 35 months had received the full recommended vaccine series. Dangerously low vaccine coverage is not limited to any geographic region of the state. By the time these children enter school, parents of more than one in 20 public schoolchildren are seeking exemptions from some shots.
Ironically, some pediatricians believe the emergence of the antivaccine movement is due to the success of vaccines in America. People born in the latter half of the 20th century now comprise the vast majority of American parents. Most of these post-baby boom parents grew up in a world without smallpox, polio, pertussis and other once-fatal childhood diseases.
Dr. Paul Offit, a respected pediatrician and vaccine expert, believes that by sharing the dramatic history and devastating effects of antivaccine movements throughout time, we will educate families and help eradicate what he calls "the virus of fear."
Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.