Carole Levine January 3, 2023
In certain parts of this nation, we are experiencing outbreaks of diseases that most of us thought were under control and we would never have to worry about. In Columbus, Ohio and Minneapolis, Minnesota, outbreaks of measles among young children have reached alarming levels. In Ohio, of the 82 cases reported since November 2022, 72 of them were ages 5 or younger and 32 of these children required hospitalization. In Minnesota, the statistics do not seem so dire, with only 13 cases reported. But in a typical year, the state sees less than four cases, generally in people who had traveled to countries where measles is more common. In the US, measles was declared eliminated in 2000, so these outbreaks are very concerning.
What is more concerning is that they seem to be concentrated in populations that are choosing to not vaccinate themselves and their children and yet choose to send their children to public schools, using religious, medical or personal (a few states have these) exemptions to state vaccination laws for school entry.
What does this mean for protecting all of our children (and adults) from the spread of highly contagious and sometimes deadly diseases. In Kentucky, six children died after contracting influenza. None of them had been vaccinated. South Carolina experienced two outbreaks of chickenpox, in March of 2022, affecting nearly 70 people. For those of us who have experiences these diseases, prior to having vaccines, we can attest to the misery and pain of the experience. But for those who feel it is their right to say “no” to vaccinations, they believe their rights are more important than the lives of others who may not share their beliefs.
Anti-vaccination believers base their opinions on one or more of these positions:
- Freedom of Choice: Anti-Vaxxers believe that mandating vaccinations to participate in public school infringes on their freedom of choice. More than a third of parents with children under 18 — and 28 percent of all adults — now say parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) to attend public schools, even if remaining unvaccinated may create health risks for others, according to new polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Personal liberty is sacred to them and that only they can make this kind of decision about their “bodily autonomy.” They have been quick to make the connection to the abortion issue, but have been told that the abortion decision by a woman does not have an impact on others, potentially spreading disease and harming other people. But many anti-vaxxers feel that feel that if their choice on not vaccinating puts others at risk… so be it.
- Parental Choice and Control: While similar to freedom of choice, the issue of who is making decisions about the health care for one’s children is seen as a key point in the vaccination argument. If the government is taking over this area and not allowing a parent to determine what is best for their child, then parent rights are at risk and the parent has no role in their child’s health and wellbeing.
- Misinformation About Vaccines: While the rumor of a link between vaccines and autism has been extensively de-bunked, it still remains out there. It has become the crutch that families seeking an explanation for their child’s disability can lean on when they have no other way to explain the unexplainable. Vaccines have never been proven to cause other illnesses, only to prevent them.
- A Belief that These Diseases No Longer Exist: Because so many of these vaccines have been so effective, many anti-vaxxers have never seen a case of the diseases they prevent and therefore do not believe the exist any longer. Unfortunately, they do. Lena H. Sun, writing for the Washington Post pointed to a case of chicken pox in a grown women in Alaska: “A few weeks ago, Zink, an emergency room doctor, saw her first case of chickenpox when a young woman walked into the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer covered in large, painful lesions. The woman said she and her family did not believe in vaccinations and told Zink she thought chickenpox no longer existed. “I was like, ‘Well, it really doesn’t when all of us choose to get vaccinated, but you aren’t vaccinated, your family’s not vaccinated, and the people you hang out with are not vaccinated. Chickenpox has been spreading in your community, and now you’re really sick,’” Zink recalled. ”
- Politics, Politics, Politics: As with everything it seems, the politics of the moment make this issue a political one rather than one about the health and wellbeing of our children and our communities. It is often the “liberal” or “conservative” position on vaccinations, or on wearing masks or quarantining, etc., rather than the health care position, backed up by scientific research that is driving behavior. Questions of “whose research”? And who funded it? And can it be trusted? abound. People want only “their” side to succeed and don’t seem to care if it costs the lives of people, including young children. On this point, our nation can do much better.
So here we are. We would all like to say that we have come through a pandemic and are now looking back with a sigh of relief. But I fear we are still at the edge of more and more outbreaks of highly preventable diseases. We have ways to keep ourselves and our children healthy if we trust the science as it continues to evolve, and we trust one another. But neither of these options seems to be easy for us to do. We have health departments that are carefully looking at the communities where these outbreaks are occurring and, even more carefully, seeking ways that are culturally and socially appropriate to introduce them to the value and safety of vaccinations. There is the beginning of some turnaround as the vaccination numbers slowly increase in these areas. Columbus is seeing some growth in its numbers and hoping for more. I would hope that this is a first step. I hope that there will be more steps to follow. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly so aptly said (through his character Pogo): “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”