Parents enjoy a lot of leeway for making mistakes with their kids. But they don’t have a right to send children they’ve refused to vaccinate to public schools, where they endanger their classmates.
Last month’s measles outbreak at Disneyland holds lessons for the 2015 Legislature. Lesson No. 1: Measles, like many of those old, once-defeated diseases, is incredibly contagious. No. 2: It can explode among unvaccinated populations.
No. 3: This state is an epidemic waiting to happen – and lawmakers should no longer let parents who object to vaccines enroll their unvaccinated children in school. The state offers anti-vaccination diehards an option: home-schooling.
Washington is a quirky state in good ways and bad. The bad includes a large number of people who reject vaccines for any number of bogus reasons: They think they’re unnatural, untested or toxic.
Or because they believe vaccines cause autism – one of the world’s most thoroughly debunked myths. Or because they just don’t like government telling them what to do.
As a result, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists Washington – along with Oregon and Idaho – in the top tier of unvaccinated states.
The state Department of Health tracks how many kindergartners enter school without adequate vaccinations. If the worst happens, school systems where anti-vaxxers tend to congregate, including Vashon Island and the San Juan Islands, will breed viral wildfires.
And there’s plenty of epidemic potential on the Puget Sound mainland. On the Peninsula and in most of East Pierce County, for example, at least 6 percent of kindergartners have some kind of exemption – usually the Don’t-Want-To kind – from vaccinations.
The percentages may sound small, but the protection of schoolchildren depends on herd immunity – a rate of vaccination high enough that viruses can’t get traction in a given population. The idea is to protect the small number of children who can’t be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons and children for whom vaccinations don’t produce immunity.
For whooping cough and measles, herd immunity can start to fade when more than 6 percent of a group is unvaccinated. These diseases once ran rampant in the United States. Children often came through OK, but sometimes the virus left them dead or with permanent brain damage.
When vaccination rates fall further, mumps and rubella can reach critical mass. Mumps can cause meningitis, brain infection and permanent deafness. When children are exposed to rubella in the womb, they are likely to be born deaf, blind or mentally impaired.
People who oppose vaccination have usually “educated” themselves with junk science found on anti-vax websites. Many of them are not likely to be persuaded by mere pediatricians, medical researchers, the CDC and National Institutes of Health. For whatever reason, anti-vaxxer culture is impermeable to medical science.
The only thing likely to persuade some of them is the prospect of not being able to enroll their children in school. In the long run, getting rid of the personal-objection exemption could save some of those children’s lives along with the lives of others.
Anti-vaxxer leaders argue that such restrictions infringe on parental choices. That might be persuasive if they had a shred of science on their side. As it is, vaccination opponents impose their own choices on other people’s children when they expose them to illness at school. Most states do not exempt schoolchildren from shots because of their parents’ philosophic objections. Washington shouldn’t, either.