The World Health Organization reports that measles outbreaks worldwide have almost tripled since last year. This is astonishing, and very troubling. Nationally, the news is filled with headlines about vaccines – or rather, the consequences of failing to get vaccines. In the past few years, universities, day cares, schools, airports, amusement parks, sports arenas and restaurants all have had to issue warnings to customers whose visits coincided with that of someone who was contagious.
Now Connecticut is embroiled in the controversy: Debate rages on social media and among competing interests at the Capitol, at least one lawsuit has been filed, and Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly tussle over whether to release school immunization data when it is finalized in October.
Connecticut allows parents to be exempted from having their children vaccinated either for medical reasons (which must be verified by a doctor), or on religious grounds. The latter exemption does not have to be substantiated by a religious authority. Because the state Department of Public Health removed a third option – the “philosophical” objection – from the requisite vaccination exemption paperwork some years ago, parents wanting to avoid vaccination increasingly claim the “religious” exemption, even though no organized religion forbids vaccination.
The “anti-vaxxer” movement flies in the face of decades of medical advancement. To be sure, the pharmaceutical industry is no saint, and anti-vaxxers are right to view it with skepticism. But the benefits of childhood vaccination are undeniable – and should be obvious even to people too young to remember the ravages of virulent childhood diseases that once were common, including measles, mumps, pertussis, rubella and polio.
Before the first measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, the nation saw between three million and four million cases a year. Because of vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered measles eradicated by 2000. But thanks to the anti-vaxxer movement, it’s back.
We are former teachers of science and journalism, and we know that a teacher’s first task with any new unit of study is to identify any existing misconceptions and correct them. There can be no progress in gaining insight into a subject if the underlying assumptions are wrong. The same is true here.
The common objection posed by anti-vaxxers is based on a debunked 1998 study in a medical journal, The Lancet. Authors of that now-discredited report, which claimed an autism-vaccine connection, were paid to produce that result. Moreover, the fraudulent study included a tiny sample of only 12 children and “researchers” rejected the many who did not support their claim. In contrast, a 2019 research project that studied 657,461 children, as published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, found no connection between the measles vaccine and autism.
Sadly, the effects of one false study linger today. Now, despite widespread consensus among legitimate studies, the battle has gone from broad respect for “herd immunity,” in which disease-proofing protects all our children, to reliance on a kind of herd mentality – the group-think where individuals seize on the positions of their “herd” regardless of truth.
As the group’s ideas are insulated from any challenge, agreement is easy and credibility doesn’t matter. A tweeting celebrity is embraced as an authority. Meanwhile the research-based explanations of physicians and scientists are ignored. Theories are embraced; facts are scorned as irrelevant.
Ironically, the perceived privilege that allows young parents to refuse to vaccinate their kids depends upon the willingness of others to put the community before self; anti-vaxxers are allowed a false sense of security only – and precisely – because others play by the rules based on decades of medical advancement. In other words, they can indulge in their “individualism” because others are willing to vaccinate their own children, thereby contributing to the herd immunity safety threshold which helps protect the unvaccinated.
But this presumption of privilege is a ticking time-bomb. As unvaccinated numbers increase, preventable diseases spread. The CDC now reports measles outbreaks in 28 states. In 2014, Disneyland admitted a single contagious visitor, and the result was 146 documented cases of measles. The disease is contagious before the infected person has any outward symptoms, so new cases will invariably expose others to infection. The result can be outbreaks that endanger our collective health and add cost and demand to our health care system.
We can, and must, fight back against the anti-vaxxers because the rights of the majority cannot be undermined by the self-interest of the minority. Arguments based on false fears and untruths can’t be allowed to stand uncorrected when they put babies and children with compromised immunity at risk.
The American Academy of Pediatricians, the Autism Science Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the World Health Organization and a host of other medical groups universally agree on the need for childhood immunizations.
According to the CDC:
- Prior to the development of the measles vaccine, the disease killed 500 Americans annually and 2.6 million worldwide, and today, one out of 1,000 people who contract measles will die.
- In addition to death, measles can also cause pneumonia in one in 20 cases, as well as seizures, hearing loss, blindness, encephalitis, and brain injury.
- Measles is highly contagious, and babies too young to be vaccinated and individuals with health issues that prevent vaccinations are the most vulnerable to the serious complications of measles.
Parental worries over vaccines doubtless are born from genuine concern. But children need, and deserve, more than that. The decision on vaccination must be based on facts and understanding, not on hearsay and assumptions. Choice may be a parent’s right; ignorance is not.
Moreover, parents who choose to vaccinate their children have the right to know the immunization rates of the schools their children attend. That’s why we encourage the Department of Public Health to release school-by-school data once statistics are updated and verified. With Connecticut schools already in session, those data can’t come soon enough. Parents have the right to assess the risk caused by unvaccinated children at the school their children attend.
We also think names of unvaccinated children should be provided, upon request, to any parent. The argument for privacy in the choice not to vaccinate should not take precedence over another parent’s right to the information needed to protect babies or medically challenged children from exposure to measles, an illness with potentially disabling consequences. Raising one’s child based on religious beliefs is a private matter; imperiling others because of those beliefs is not.
As former teachers, we encourage every effort to promote facts about vaccines and measles. As parents, we immunized our children for their safety, and we care about the safety of all children. As citizens, we all must make decisions for the good of the entire community.
Jan Taigen of Chester is a retired science teacher and former University of Connecticut museum education director. Christine Palm is a former journalism teacher and serves as state representative for the 36th House District.