Tag: survivorship bias

Why Didn’t Everyone Die with Our 1980s Level of Vaccination Rates?

This is actually a real question that someone recently asked:

“Can someone please explain how we survived the 1980s with vaccination rates well below “herd immunity” thresholds and far fewer vaccines? Why didn’t everyone die?”

J.B. Handley

Mr. Handley even provides a nice chart to give his question some context.

Vaccination rates for 2 year old children in 1985.
The chart shows vaccination rates for 2 year old children in 1985.

So why didn’t everyone die?

That’s easy.

While vaccine-preventable diseases can be life-threatening, they certainly don’t kill everyone who gets them. They are not 100% fatal. Well, rabies usually is, but not surprisingly, rabies wasn’t on his little chart…

Deaths from Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, 1985

What else does Mr. Handley miss?

“Comparisons between rates obtained from immunization records versus the total sample (records and recall) conducted on data collected between 1979 and 1983 showed that the USIS, which accepted parental recall, underestimated the true vaccination rate in preschoolers by as much as 23% for some antigens.”

Simpson et al on Forty years and four surveys: How does our measuring measure up?

The vaccination rates he is citing were based on a phone survey that wasn’t thought to be very accurate, underestimating true vaccination rates. It was last used in 1985.

While vaccination rates weren’t great at the time, they just weren’t as horrible as he makes it seem, but we still had some deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases. Not as bad as the pre-vaccine era though, when hundreds of people died with measles each year.

Here’s the data from the CDC for 1985:

https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/E/reported-cases.pdf

  • 23 deaths from tetanus
  • 4 deaths from pertussis
  • 4 deaths from measles
  • 1 death from rubella
  • 2 cases of congenital rubella syndrome

Unfortunately, it got worse. This was just before the large measles outbreaks from 1989 to 1991, when 123 people died. During those three years, there were also 28 deaths from pertussis, 6 deaths from mumps, 13 deaths from rubella and 77 cases of congenital rubella syndrome!

But then we learned our lesson and we got kids vaccinated. But most of the problems then were about access to vaccines, not parents who intentionally skipped or delayed vaccines for their kids.

Deaths from non-Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, 1985

The CDC Morbidity and Motality Weekly Report includes summaries of notifiable diseases in the United States.Many of the diseases on J.B. Handley’s chart weren’t yet vaccine-preventable in 1985. They were quite deadly though, which is why vaccines were being developed and were eventually added to the schedule to protect our kids from getting them.

But in 1985 (*or in the years before the vaccine was introduced), tragically, the CDC lists:

  • 80 deaths from hepatitis A
  • 490 deaths from hepatitis B
  • 68 deaths from chicken pox
  • 219 deaths from Hib meningitis in children and about another 45 deaths from Hib epiglotittis
  • at least 200 deaths from pneumococcal disease in children*
  • 257 deaths from meningococcal infections
  • 20 to 60 deaths each year from rotavirus infections*

Want us to Turn Back the Clock and go back to an immunization plan (the Jenny McCarthy schedule) that didn’t include vaccines against any of these diseases? We would end up back to when kids still died of meningitis, pneumonia, blood infections, severe dehydration, epiglottitis, and cancer from Hib, pneumococcal disease, rotavirus, hepatitis B, hepatitis A, chicken pox, HPV, and meningococcal disease.

And the answer to Mr. Handley’s question becomes even more obvious.

How did we survive the 1980s with vaccination rates well below “herd immunity” thresholds and far fewer vaccines?

Many people didn’t.

What to Know About Deaths and Vaccination Rates

Poor vaccination rates and fewer vaccines led to more deaths from now vaccine preventable diseases in the mid-1980s.

More on Deaths and Vaccination Rates

 

Grave Reminders of Life Before Vaccines

Need a reminder of just how serious vaccine preventable diseases can be?

Don’t remember the pre-vaccine era?

That could be why some folks are so quick to think that skipping or delaying vaccines is a safe option for their kids.

Vaccines are necessary.

Without them, we will see even more outbreaks of measles, mumps, and pertussis and kids will continue to die of rabies, tetanus, and other now vaccine-preventable diseases.

The South Park Cemetary was begun in 1891 during a diphtheria epidemic.
A diphtheria cemetery in Wyoming.

Isolation hospitals and pest houses were commonly used to quarantine folks with smallpox.
Isolation hospitals and pest houses were commonly used to quarantine folks with smallpox and other now vaccine-preventable diseases.

Even mild smallpox, as depicted on this WHO Smallpox Recognition Card, included flu like symptoms, a few weeks of pustules, and then waiting for the lesions to scab over...
Even mild smallpox, as depicted on this WHO Smallpox Recognition Card, included flu like symptoms, a few weeks of pustules, and then waiting for the lesions to scab over…

People continued to die of smallpox well into the 20th century, even though an effective vaccine was developed in 1796.
People continued to die of smallpox well into the 20th century, even though an effective vaccine was developed in 1796.

In the pre-vaccine era, we had outbreaks of polio, and other, now vaccine-preventable diseases.
Outbreaks of polio would once isolate entire towns, as parents feared their kids would get sick too.

Fight Polio Poster
When was the last time you saw a child with polio?

Before wide use of the Hib and Prevnar vaccines, infants with fever would routinely get spinal taps and you would hope for clear fluid (cloudy fluid could be a sign of a bacterial infection).
Before wide use of the Hib and Prevnar vaccines, younger infants with fever would routinely need spinal taps and you would hope for clear fluid (cloudy fluid could be a sign of a Hib or Strep pneumo infection).

In the pre-vaccine era, Hib caused epiglottitis, meningitis, and pneumonia - all life-threatening diseases that are now prevented by the Hib vaccine.
In the pre-vaccine era, Hib caused epiglottitis, meningitis, and pneumonia – all life-threatening diseases that are now prevented by the Hib vaccine.

Before the 1990s, when the Hib vaccine available, hospitals had an epiglottitis team on call and always available.
Before the 1990s, when the Hib vaccine available, hospitals had an epiglottitis team on call and always available.

News of the Newark kids going to Paris to get Pasteur's rabies vaccine made the front page of the New York Times.
In 1885, several boys from Newark went all of the way to Paris to get Pasteur’s new rabies vaccine, as the disease had always been fatal up until that time.

Even if they survive, kids can lose fingers, toes, or even arms and legs to meningococcemia.
Even if they survive, kids can lose fingers, toes, or even arms and legs to meningococcemia.

Roald Dahl's daughter died of measles in 1962, the year before the development of the first measles vaccine.
Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles in 1962, the year before the development of the first measles vaccine.

Nationwide, at least 123 people died in the United States during a large measles epidemic from 1989 to 1991, during a time that we had good sanitation, nutrition, and medical care.
Nationwide, at least 123 people died in the United States during large measles epidemics from 1989 to 1991, a time when we had good sanitation, nutrition, and medical care, but some folks weren’t vaccinated and we weren’t yet giving a second dose of MMR.

A papilloma caused by HPV on the vocal cords of a child with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
A papilloma caused by HPV on the vocal cords of a child with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. (CC BY 4.0)

You don't have to go back to the pre-vaccine era to know that pertussis kills.
You don’t have to go back to the pre-vaccine era to know that pertussis kills. Ten infants died in 2010 in California from pertussis infections.

We should never forget what life was like before vaccines.

We should know that vaccine-preventable diseases were rarely mild, natural immunity comes at a cost, and that those who died from smallpox, diphtheria, measles, and polio aren’t around to talk about their experiences on Facebook (survivorship bias).

We should never forget that vaccine-preventable diseases were once big killers, and the only reason some folks have grown to fear the side effects of vaccines more than the diseases they prevent, is because we don’t see those diseases very much any more. If more people skip or delay getting vaccinated, we will though.

immunization-program-stages
As more people are vaccinated and diseases disappear, they forget how bad those diseases are, skip or delay getting their vaccines, and trigger outbreaks. Photo by WHO

Vaccines are safe and vaccines work.

Get vaccinated and protected.

Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases belong in the past.

What to Know About Life Before Vaccines

Forgetting the pre-vaccine era and the benefits of vaccines makes folks susceptible to anti-vaccine talking points and scares them away from vaccinating and protecting their kids.

More on Remembering Life Before Vaccines