The anti-vaccination movement is growing.
In some Australian communities an increasing number of parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children against potentially deadly diseases.
With this in mind, is it possible that 2017 will be the year when the anti-vaxxers win? Could we see a tipping point in public health, in which all the gains we’ve made over the past few decades are lost?
In a recent New York Times article, scientist and researcher Peter J. Hotez, argued that the US is dangerously close to this tipping point.
According to Hotez, when the percentage of children in a community who have received the measles vaccine falls below 90 to 95 percent, we might start to see major outbreaks.
In the 1950s four million Americans a year were infected with measles and 450 died each year from the disease. Worldwide, measles still kills around 100,000 children each year.
And Hotez says the US could potentially see a return to these alarming statistics sooner rather than later.
Hotez lives and works in Texas and believes it may be the first state to once again experience serious measles outbreaks.
As of last year, more than 45,000 children in the state of Texas had received non-medical exemptions from their school vaccinations.
According to Hotez, a political action committee has been raising money to protect this “conscientious exemption” loophole and to instruct parents on how to file for it. As a result, some public school systems in the state are coming dangerously close to the threshold when measles outbreaks can be expected, for example in Gaines County alone nearly five per cent of students are not being vaccinated due to a conscientious exemption. And a third of students at some private schools are unvaccinated.
And this is increasingly becoming the case across America.
In Australia, the situation isn't quite so dire. Yet.
We've definitely seen an increase in parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, but we're unlikely to see widespread outbreaks of measles and other diseases in the near future.
In fact, we're much more likely to see local outbreaks in the communities where vaccination numbers are dropping such as the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and Mullumbimby in the Northern Rivers of NSW.
According to Professor Robert Booy, Head of the Clinical Research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, we need well over 90% of people to be vaccinated in every community to prevent localised outbreaks.
"If measles is introduced to a new community that hasn't yet experienced the disease, one person can infect up to ten other people," he explained.
"Once you drop under 90 per cent, and the number of people who can catch it increases, you get outbreaks."
"To begin with they may be small, but the more susceptible people you have, the bigger the outbreaks."
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And these smaller localised outbreaks could potentially lead to bigger outbreaks down the line.
Booy believes that the only way to prevent this long term damage is for more parents to immunise their children now.
"Immunisation is so important, it's so safe and so effective, that it sells itself."