From duck-and-cover drills to ducktail haircuts, there are many reasons why the thought of returning to the 1950s holds little appeal.
High on the list of things we don’t miss from the “Leave it to Beaver” era is the normalcy with which communities accepted childhood disease. As winter turned to spring in 1956, Pierce County reported 102 mumps cases in a single week, while measles, chickenpox and scarlet fever also raged.
These contagions were so common, county statisticians included them with their routine census of dog bites.
The advent of the vaccine age meant the U.S. would never have to accept such misery again. But this year’s flare-up of mumps in Washington, following spates of measles and whooping cough in recent years, offers a winter reminder that the old viruses are tenacious.
Preserving “herd immunity” is our best defense, and keeping children’s immunizations up-to-date is the best way to look after the herd.
Pierce County seems to get it. Families here are ducking vaccines in decreasing numbers; those granted an exemption for their kindergartner has sharply decreased since 2008, settling at 4.1 percent last year. Washington’s opt-out rate has dropped, too, but is still too high compared with the rest of the country.
Alas, vaccine phobia might find a friend in the White House. Donald Trump has made previous statements about immunizations causing autism — kneejerk bursts of Trumpspeak that put him at odds with science but in harmony with anti-vax conspiracists.
Last week, he met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the country’s No. 1 vaccine skeptic, in one of the weirder Trump Tower confabs this side of Kanye West. Anything Trump does to pander to that crowd and scare his millions of disciples from inoculating their kids could pose a threat to public health.
Meanwhile, Washington has its largest mumps outbreak in 26 years. Locally, a half dozen children have been diagnosed in the Fife and Puyallup schools, spilling over from a larger cluster of cases in South King County.
Symptoms include fever, muscle ache and telltale facial swelling. In extreme cases, mumps can cause brain and spinal inflammation, deafness or sterility.
But compared to this year’s nasty flu season, which has killed at least 12 people in Pierce County, mumps pack a light punch. Modern-era mumps are cyclical, manageable and amount to a “tiny fraction” of cases compared to the 1950s and ’60s, says Nigel Turner, communicable disease control director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Though not an epidemic, the recent mumps surge has created an opening to preach the immunization gospel.
States strive to maintain an overall vaccination rate high enough that viruses can’t gain a foothold in vulnerable populations. That includes the very old, the very young or those who can’t be vaccinated (for medical reasons) or won’t (for religious or other personal reasons).
Local schools have been effective getting kids lined up for shots, identifying unvaccinated outliers and excluding them from class when necessary, such as during the mumps outbreak. (Anyone under 18 who’s not up-to-date should step lively to the South Hill Mall, where a walk-in clinic is open most days.)
The state and county are doing important work centralizing data in an Immunization Information System. It’s a key public health tool in a mobile society in which families change physicians often and can lose track of vaccination records. More schools need to plug into the registry and ditch hard-copy files.
One chronic weakness in Washington’s disease defense: It gives too much slack to families who don’t want their kids inoculated for personal reasons.
A bill to do away with most non-medical exemptions died in Olympia in 2015 and in 2016. Curiously, sponsors say they don’t plan to try again this year. They should.
As for the president-elect, we hope someone gives him a dose of epidemiological insight and a booster shot of common sense.
Spreading viruses is bad. Spreading irrational fear based on junk science is worse.