There’s been a lot of talk recently about the “free range” parenting movement. You know what’s of far greater concern? The vaccine-free parenting movement. I’m not bothered by a free range kid who walks home from the park alone. But vaccine-free kids who show up at the park without the immunizations that protect them against measles, mumps and other childhood diseases? That’s a real worry.
Because here’s the thing: anti-vaccine parents (also known as anti-vaxxers) not only put their own kids at risk, they put ours at risk too–particularly those who are truly too young or too sick to get the vaccine. Measles is crazy contagious. NPR just reported there are now 88 confirmed cases of measles linked to a December outbreak of the disease at Disneyland. Most of the cases are in California and most of those infected were not vaccinated. Equally bad news: 88 is probably not the final number.
Wired.com wrote a great piece on the measles outbreak at Disneyland. One of the things I learned: measles is so contagious, of 100 people who aren’t vaccinated, about 90 will get infected. Even if you are fully vaccinated, you still have a 3 percent chance of contracting the highly contagious illness (I’ll take a 3 percent odds of measles over 90 percent any day). Equally worrisome: the infected can carry the illness back to their communities, their schools, and their parks.
At special risk: babies and young children not fully immuized due to their age. And kids like Rhett Krawitt, who can’t be immunized because his immune system is still rebuilding from battling leukemia for most of his six years. In an effort to protect him, Rhett’s parents have asked the Marin County (CA) school district to require immunization as a condition of attendance, with exceptions for those who cannot medically be vaccinated. That’s an important distinction: there are children who can’t get vaccines for real medical reasons–not just because their parents don’t like vaccines.
Rhett’s family is offering a serious response to a serious illness. According to the CDC, measles is a highly infectious, acute viral illness that can be complicated by severe pneumonia, diarrhea, and encephalitis. It can result in death. Can you imagine watching your child survive leukemia and then have to battle measles because some parents refused to avail their children (seven percent of Rhett’s school) of a readily available and effective vaccine? Epidemiologists warn that once vaccination levels dip below 90 or 95 percent, there aren’t enough protected people to keep the disease in check—also known as herd immunity. We like herd immunity, it protects the weakest and the youngest.
Doubts about vaccine safety and limited understanding of the diseases they protect against are two commonly cited reasons for refusing to vaccinate. (A claim that by Andrew Wakefield that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine could cause autism was found to be fraudulent by the British Medical Journal in 2011.) Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, notes that:
We have roomfuls of evidence showing that vaccines are some of the safest medications available, but rumors and conspiracy theories still spread. Young parents today haven’t seen these diseases, and they don’t respect and fear them.
Unfortunately, parents may start seeing more of these diseases. The CDC reported 66 cases of measles in the entire United States in 2005. Ten years later, a single case at Disneyland has led to 88 cases and counting. The Wired.com story ended on this ominous note: “2014 was a banner year for the measles: 635 US residents were infected, more than the past four years combined. Without a change, those numbers will keep going up.”
So what changes can we make to keep the numbers from going up? This is where the anti-vaccine movement has a lot of power. It’s in the best interest of all children to vaccinate.
There is another option. If you still refuse to vaccinate, maybe it’s time to self-quarantine. It can’t be that hard–you can order in your groceries (delivered at a safe distance) and home school your children. Heck, why not go a step further and organize an anti-vax village? Gated of course, to keep you in and us out. You could grow your own fruit and veg. Run your own schools. You can have anti-vaccine conferences right there in the village.
Sound ridiculous? Of course it does. No one should have to isolate their kid. Nor should parents of vulnerable children like Rhett have to worry about measles, eradicated in our country just fifteen years ago. The bad news for Rhett and children like him who are medically fragile: they don’t have much choice when it comes to immunizations. The good news: most parents do have a choice. And parents in the anti-vaccine movement have the power to impact the lives of countless children by making the right choice.
Choosing whether or not to vaccinate is not the same thing as choosing whether to be a free range parent, or choosing organic versus non-organic milk or public versus private school. Parents facing those choices do so knowing they impact one child: their own.
In contrast, the decision to not vaccinate your child can impact the health of many children. In the name of children like Rhett and our common humanity (and with the backing of strong scientific research), please vaccinate. It’s the right thing for all our kids. It’s time.