Last week, a Facebook comment thread on a Valley Advocate parenting column about dealing with tantrums went in an unexpected direction. Despite the article having nothing to do with vaccines, a reader took the opportunity to rail against them and espouse conspiracy theories with no scientific basis.
This week, the New York Times has reported that measles cases across the country have surpassed 700, already propelling 2019 to be the year with the highest number of cases since the disease was considered “eradicated” in the United States in 2000 — and we still have eight months to go.
Like so many other topics today, disinformation playing to people’s fears is affecting their judgments with regard to a decision that should be a no-brainer — vaccinating their children. And this one has deadly consequences.
Part of the problem is a lack of respect for the severity of the illness. About 1 in 1,000 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it spreads like wildfire among those who aren’t vaccinated. Up to 90 percent of people near someone who has it can catch it if unvaccinated, the CDC reports.
And yet, here in Western Mass, we have some of the highest rates of unimmunized children in the state for a swath of diseases including measles. State data shows two issues: a high number of parents requesting exemptions from their children being vaccinated in schools in both Franklin and Hampshire counties and schools reporting very low vaccination levels in certain communities, among them Holyoke.
Nationwide, the rate of children under 2 years old that have gone unvaccinated for measles and other diseases has quadrupled since 2001, from 0.3 percent to 1.3 percent, according to the CDC. Right along with that trend, we have seen an increase in measles outbreaks, leading up to this anomalous year.
Massachusetts state law allows for both medical and religious exemptions, with the vast majority of exemptions requested being religious. Almost all states provide either religious or what are known as philosophical exemptions to allow parents to have their unvaccinated children attend school.
I’m sympathetic to people who have some distrust of conventional medicine. Past investigations have, in my opinion, shown us that doctors were too willing to prescribe opioids to their patients, leading to a higher level of addiction. I also see new research on the body’s microbiome calling into question some uses of antibiotics to treat certain conditions.
Our medical scientists don’t always get it right. But in this case we are living through a striking piece of evidence on the dangers of allowing ourselves to go unvaccinated against this very contagious disease.
I’d be hesitant to call for the repeal of religious or even philosophical exemptions to vaccinations or other medical procedures. People should have a right to freedom with regard to making use of medical care.
But the flip side of that is that anyone considering withholding a vaccination from their child should seriously consider the consequences, not only to their child, but to children around them, as well. Unvaccinated children with respect to measles are extremely susceptible to the disease and can help it to spread. While the vaccine is extremely effective, it does not work in all cases, and outbreaks among unvaccinated children can increase the likelihood that someone with the vaccine will be infected, too.
And as always, when researching this and every topic, be sure to look at the source to make sure it is reputable. Websites spinning bogus theories on thin evidence should not be given equal weight with organizations like the CDC and the World Health Organization, both of which are focused on keeping people healthy through scientific research.
Our collective health can be a fragile thing, as recent outbreaks of infectious diseases — including ebola outbreaks in 2014 and 2018 — have shown us. With a contagious disease like the measles, that’s especially true.
From climate change, to the growing threat of plastic in our oceans, to the possibility of new diseases resistant to treatment infecting populations, there are so many calamitous possibilities we face together. Let’s not make a disease we have an effective vaccine against be one of them.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.