The recent measles outbreak originating from exposure of children at Disneyland has revived an age-old anti-immigrant argument: unvaccinated immigrants from Mexico are spreading preventable diseases like measles and pertussis (whooping cough). Though this assertion has gained some momentum in the wake of the public health scare, experts note the data proves otherwise.
“We often see people blaming pertussis outbreaks on people coming to the U.S. from other countries. This is not the case,” Anna Acosta, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, told The Journal Sentinel. “Pertussis was never eliminated from the U.S. like polio, so there’s always the chance to get it into a community.”
People are quick to link poverty with a lack of vaccination status, but child welfare programs in the U.S. have made many preventable disease vaccines no-cost or low-cost for immigrant families, sometimes making it easier for immigrants to vaccinate their children. What’s more, data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows vaccination rates in Mexico and Central American countries are comparable–and often superior–to those in the United States.
In the United States, for example, measles vaccination rates in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 were 92 percent, 92 percent, 92 percent and 91 percent, respectively. Mexico’s numbers for the same time periods were 95 percent, 98 percent, 99 percent and 89 percent.
Whooping cough numbers showed the same pattern. In the U.S., during 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, pertussis vaccination rates were 95 percent, 95 percent, 96 percent and 94 percent, compared to Mexico’s vaccination rates of 95 percent, 97 percent, 99 percent and 83 percent.
“I’ve never heard any credible report of a link between immigration and pertussis,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the department of health in Texas. “There are a lot of things contributing to an increase in pertussis diagnoses, but in all my talking about it with public health folks over the last four or five years, no one has ever mentioned immigration (or even travel) as a factor.”
So where are all the unvaccinated individuals in the United States coming from?
Experts say most were born here and not from a minority group. Most of these individuals are, according to research, from well-educated, upper- and middle-income segments of the population, and they typically do not vaccinate due to “philosophical or religious beliefs.”
This refusal to vaccine is what is driving recent preventable disease outbreaks, say experts. This is because undervaccination is not as dangerous as deliberate refusal of vaccination. Minorities and immigrants are most likely to be undervaccinated, indicates a report from Chicago Magazine, but this is not to be confused with parents who knowingly deny vaccines. Undervaccination among immigrants generally means children have either only the most important vaccines (which includes measles and whooping cough) or these children have not completed the series of shots but may have some partial immunity as a result.
Partial vaccination is still better than no vaccination.
“I do not believe undocumented immigrants are a significant contributor to the increase in pertussis rates,” Michael Landen, state epidemiologist for New Mexico’s department of health said. “In New Mexico, a much bigger contributor would be the children with school vaccination exemptions.”