Anti-Vaccination Parents Richer, Better Educated

Research suggests that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children don't do so because they lack education. Continue reading →

A recent study published in the "American Journal of Public Health" examined the demographics of California school students who had requested and received exemptions from mandatory vaccinations for nonmedical reasons. The study, "Sociodemographic Predictors of Vaccination Exemptions on the Basis of Personal Belief in California," found that from 2007 to 2013 the rate of vaccine refusal for personal belief doubled, to 3.06 percent.

Though the rate of overall vaccine refusal was low in absolute terms, it has implications for what's known as herd immunity and raises the risk of disease for the general population. The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting - and, for many, unexpected - pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it's the more educated parents who tend to reject them.

Nicholas Bakalar of "The New York Times" notes that "Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent."

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Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book "American Conspiracy Theories," note that "Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease."

Doubts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines are not merely the domain of the conspiracy crowd but instead are occasionally spread by mainstream news media. Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, for example, have long raised concerns, and earlier this year one of Canada's most respected newspapers, the "Toronto Star," ran a front-page series of articles casting doubt on the safety of the Gardasil anti-HPV vaccine - until an outcry from doctors led to the newspaper retracting the story and its publisher saying "the paper failed the public in the way it presented its story."

Such high-profile news stories highlighting vaccine dangers - whether eventually retracted or not - can and do influence the opinions of the educated middle and upper class.

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Andrea Kitta, an Associate Professor at East Carolina University explains in her book "Vaccinations and Public Concern in History:"

"There is a discrepancy between personal health care and public health care. Autonomy and personal rights are very important to society; and North American medical culture values the rights of patients. For patients, it is acceptable to undertake a treatment when ill, but it is harder to accept a preventative measure, especially when the person in question is not sick. Add to this the risk of a health individual being potentially harmed by a preventative measure, and there is no surprise that many will refuse this treatment."

Even those who acknowledge the safety and efficacy of vaccines may oppose them for unrelated reasons. Kitta told Discovery News, "People who choose not to vaccinate truly believe their rights are being violated and believe they are in danger of further violation ... Some people will now reject vaccines solely on the basis that they feel their rights are being violated - not because they necessarily oppose or are even uncertain about vaccination."

In an interview with Lindsay Beyerstein on the "Point of Inquiry" podcast, Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, believes that the educated and wealthy parents don't vaccinate because "they don't fear the disease. I think it's that simple. I think in Southern California, you're living this wealthy, upper middle class, upper-class environment. You're eating well, you're exercising. You don't see this disease so you think this is not going to happen to me, until it happens to you. That's the way it always works with these diseases."

Whatever the basis for a given person's opposition to vaccination, the refusals are likely to continue. Protests against vaccinations date back centuries, often opposed not just by the poorly educated but also by those of wealth and status. Until and unless their own children are afflicted by a vaccine-preventable disease, they are likely to keep up the fight.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Discovery News that "2015 was a very active year for protecting Americans." Indeed, there were plenty of crises and near-crises that threatened our health. Here's a sampling of six scares from 2015. In the meantime, the World Health Organization has already

issued a list of the top diseases on its watchlist

for 2016. For the second year, Ebola dominated global health issues. At the CDC, over 4,000 staff members, or 20 percent of the staff, worked on curtailing the outbreak, Frieden said. "The thing that is least well understood about Ebola is how close it became to a global catastrophe," Frieden said. "It could have been widespread in Africa for years, and it would have killed people not just from Ebola, but because health systems stop functioning." In fact, in Guinea,

more people died of malaria than Ebola

, because the country's health care system was so overloaded with Ebola patients that people with other diseases couldn't get proper treatment. "Ebola is an epidemic that not only kills but undermines others," Frieden said.

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Over 15,000 Americans died from

Clostridium difficile


C. difficile

) in a single year; it causes more hospital-acquired infections than any other bacteria, according to a CDC study. Not only do people often contract it when they are on antibiotics; some strains are resistant to treatment from antibiotics, making fecal transplants the leading alternative treatment. But the scariest bacteria news of 2015 might be the recent finding that a superbug gene found in China quickly infected someone in Denmark, highlighting the risk that drug-resistant bacteria pose to most modern medicine. "I'm an infectious disease physician and I have treated many people with cancer who are getting chemotherapy and have had horrible infections held in check with antibiotics," Frieden said. "If we don't have antibiotics, then cancer and other [modern medical treatments] are hanging by a thread." Waiting for a new miracle drug is a mistake, he added; it's also essential to take "better stewardship of the antibiotics we have."

New Resistant Superbug Spreading

Air pollution is a silent killer, said Dr. Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But there's no escaping it. "With air, you cannot wake up one morning and say you're not going to breathe or even move somewhere with clean air," she said. "It's affecting everybody." There is an antidote, however: "If we shut down coal-fired power plants, it would save lives immediately," she said. "But it's the one thing no one is talking about." Climate change talk tends to focus on the future, what life will be like in 100 years. But there is a "health crisis happening right now," she said, and "it's crazy to think people are not doing anything about it. In a certain way, not acting on air quality and power plants is like not acting on the Ebola epidemic." When coal-fired power plants are shut down, the ambient air improves immediately, she said. Air pollution is linked to cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 killer in the U.S. It's also associated with lung function and cognitive issues in children.

Air Pollution in China Kills Millions Annually

Although it didn't cause any deaths, the measles outbreak traced to Disneyland grabbed headlines across the country and put the debate about vaccines back in the spotlight. Many of the 147 people who fell sick were not immunized against measles, either for personal beliefs or because they were too young to get the vaccine. Vaccines in the U.S. are "underused," Frieden said. Take the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for girls and boys at age 11 or 12: according to a 2014 survey, 40 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys hadn't started the 3-shot series. "We're doing less well that Rwanda at protecting our children against HPV," he said. About 25 percent of Americans are infected with HPV, which can cause several types of cancer.

5 Disease Outbreaks Linked to Vaccine-Shy Parents

Each year, more than 200,000 people die from preventable medical errors, killing more Americans than anything except for heart disease and cancer. "Considering we're all going to get sick at some point and need a hospital, it's hard to think we could suffer from error, and care that is not coordinated as it should be," Dominici said. Errors include everything from giving patients the wrong medication to giving premature babies too much oxygen.

Mistakes Made In Half of All Surgeries

When 180 people in one small town in Indiana were infected with HIV in less than a year, it drew national attention. In a county that typically sees fewer than five cases of HIV a year, most of the new cases were linked to partners injecting the prescription opioid oxymorphone with shared syringes. Opioid pain relievers are prescribed for reducing severe pain, but "we got the risk-benefit wrong," Frieden said. "There's a short-term benefit, but in the medium- and long-term, you could die from it." The painkillers are so addictive that 1.9 million Americans live with prescription opioid abuse or dependence, and there are thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. per year. The 2015 Indiana State Department of Health investigation reveals additional risks, including a resurgence of HIV.

Video: Big Leap Toward HIV Cure