It’s time to talk about measles, vaccines, choices and consequences.
As a May 23 Journal article pointed out, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, thanks to the widespread education about and administration of the effective measles vaccine. Now, the highly contagious – and sometimes dangerous as well as deadly – disease is enjoying a comeback.
To put the numbers in perspective, 63 cases of measles were reported in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of May 17 this year, 880 cases had already been reported. Most people who have been sickened in outbreaks around the country were unvaccinated, and several distinct outbreaks were started by unvaccinated people who had traveled to countries where the disease is still common. The CDC notes measles spreads quickly through “communities with pockets of unvaccinated people,” as seen in orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in New York with low immunization rates.
Here in New Mexico, we’ve been lucky. Because despite the apparently rising number of immunization exemption forms on file with the state, we have avoided an outbreak. Unfortunately, the existence of those climbing numbers of nonimmunized people means we’re holding onto a kite in a thunderstorm.
Let’s be clear: Allergies and autoimmune conditions are the only reasonable excuses parents have for not vaccinating their children and then sending them to the petri dish we call public school. Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, is right to raise the issue of so-called religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. When the majority of exemptions in the Land of Enchantment are in affluent Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Taos, you have to wonder just who is availing themselves of those exemptions? And how many of those people are making their decisions based on religious belief vs., say, an anti-establishment disposition?
If someone’s belief system asks them to risk their child’s health by ignoring decades of scientific research in favor of vague or debunked suspicions, or a categorical rejection of modern medicine, perhaps that should be allowed.
But they should not be able to send their unvaccinated kids to public school and put everyone else at risk. It’s as simple as that.
As a reminder, measles can be an extremely serious disease. According to the CDC, complications can include:
• Ear infections that can lead to permanent hearing loss
“Herd immunity” depends on at least 95% of the population being immunized, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen. Children who can’t be vaccinated because of an allergy or compromised immune systems depend on the strength of those numbers. They don’t have a choice.
Many New Mexico families with at-risk children likely can’t afford to home-school or send their kids to private school just to avoid nonimmunized classmates. And it’s not fair that they should have to.
Freedom of thought and freedom of religion are fundamental cornerstones of our society. Anti-vaxxers can absolutely choose to ignore the best science-based information available. But that freedom shouldn’t be allowed to take away choices for the rest of us and put other children at risk.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.