After we heap scorn on climate change deniers. After we roll our eyes over Creationists. After we express dismay that so many people can deny mainstream science. After we decry their willingness to believe whatever studies — however flawed — confirm their deeply held beliefs. After all that, let’s turn our attention to vaccinations against contagious diseases.
In 2015 I discussed that topic within the framework of individual rights versus community care. In regard to vaccinations, however, up to a point those who don’t wish to vaccinate their children can have it both ways. As long as enough other parents vaccinate their children, unvaccinated children are protected from the implications of their parents’ choice. Only when enough individuals avoid even the small risks that vaccinations pose for the average child does collective immunity weaken and the costs of individual choice manifest themselves.
That, unfortunately, is what has just happened near us. The measles outbreak in southern Washington state and the Portland area is alarming. As of last Sunday, there were 65 confirmed cases in Clark County and 1 in King County, Washington. As of Feb. 7, there were four confirmed cases in Multnomah County, Oregon. In Clark County, more than 22 percent of public school students haven’t completed their recommended vaccinations. Public health officials consider that an immunization rate of at least 92 percent is needed to create “herd immunity” against measles.
In January, the World Health Organization reported that people choosing not to vaccinate is creating a global health threat. It cited as an example a 30 percent increase of measles cases. “The reasons for this rise are complex,” the report added, “and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.” In the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control, last year there were 17 outbreaks and a total of 349 cases. Not coincidentally, it reported that between 2001 and 2015 the number of unvaccinated youngsters quadrupled.
Oregon, Washington and 15 other states allow unvaccinated children to enroll in school not only if there is medical proof they are at risk of serious harm from vaccines or if their parents have religious objections, but also for “philosophical or personal” objections. Those latter objections are now coming under renewed scrutiny. This session, bills have been filed in both Olympia and Salem to eliminate them. The Washington bill is restricted to vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella.
Nationally, Oregon has the highest rate of children legally exempt from school vaccination requirements. Ashland is a hotbed of the “anti-vax” movement. Some of its adherents still believe the thoroughly discredited study asserting a link between vaccinations and autism. Some are motivated by a general hostility to Western medicine. Some have legitimate complaints about the recently expanded range of diseases for which vaccinations are recommended and thus reject them all. Some prefer to guard their children from the small risks that any drug poses. However tenable their motives, the anti-vax adherents pose a threat, not just to their own children, but to the community.
If it’s you I’ve been describing, I urge you to ask yourself two questions. One is whether the information you’ve been relying on is any better than what climate change deniers use. The other is whether, as you weighed the benefits and risks of your choice, you gave due consideration to those who, for confirmed medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.