I recall a comment by Dr. Seth Berkley, the CEO of The Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunizations, about what it’s like to spend time in a country without vaccines. “The faces of the mothers and fathers say it all,” he said. “Vaccines prevent illness and save lives.”
Yet recently, the Trump administration announced that U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not provide flu vaccines to migrant children held in detention facilities at the U.S. southern border.
Six migrant children have died from the flu after being detained in U.S. custody. No deaths from flu were recorded during the previous 10 years.
Infectious diseases, including potentially deadly flu and now measles and mumps, spread more quickly in places where people congregate.
The risk is even greater in the overcrowded conditions that many detained migrants experience, particularly in the winter months when flu transmission is rampant.
For the 2017-2018 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 49 million people in the United States fell ill from the flu. Of those sickened by the flu, about half visited doctors, with almost 1 million hospitalizations and about 80,000 deaths.
Deaths from flu infection amount to more than 10% of the number of people who die of cancer each year. If we had a vaccine to prevent cancer, how many people would skip their chance to be vaccinated? Nevertheless, many people believe that the flu vaccine is not important because they personally will not be infected with the virus or die from it.
Unfortunately, this mindset threatens the health of others. Studies of infectious diseases have revealed a concept known as “herd immunity.” Herd immunity helps protect the human population from a virus like the flu, even when not everyone is immunized.
The reality is that many people cannot be adequately protected by vaccination because they don’t have the ability to make an effective immune response.
For example, your grandmother or your baby brother often cannot fight off the flu because immunity is compromised for the very young, the very old and people who may be receiving medical treatment for cancer.
However, we can protect our more vulnerable population if “the herd,” or most people, have sufficient immunity from vaccination so that flu does not spread to Grandma or your baby brother or other susceptible individuals.
Immunizing more healthy people promotes herd immunity for those who are unable to be vaccinated. A short-sighted decision not to immunize children of migrants held in U. S. custody compromises this strategy.
From Customs and Border Protection officers to advocates visiting facilities, people in direct contact with unvaccinated migrants can transmit the disease unknowingly to those outside detention centers, potentially leading to an epidemic.
During the most recent flu season, vaccination prevented an estimated 7 million illnesses, more than 100,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths. If more individuals were vaccinated, we could prevent even more illnesses and deaths due to the flu.
We have an obligation to “the herd” to prevent the spread of influenza and other diseases for which there are effective vaccines, such as measles and mumps. In the days of global travel, where illnesses are readily spread between regions or continents, failure to vaccinate the children of migrants will not protect our friends, family and neighbors, but instead will lead to needless deaths. To the anti-vaccination community, I ask: Would you put your child in a car without seat belts? Like seat belts, vaccination to protect “the herd” should be mandatory.
Jaquelin Dudley is a professor of oncology and a member of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Waco Tribune Herald, and the Austin American Statesman.