OUR POSITION: Public vaccination programs protect the herd against disease.^p
Responding to an outbreak of measles last week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency and ordered mandatory vaccinations of all children in affected Brooklyn neighborhoods, primarily populated by Orthodox Jews.
The same week, the Tampa Bay Times reported the number of Florida students granted religious exemptions from vaccinations has risen to nearly 25,000. From 2011 to 2018, the newspaper found, exemptions increased from roughly 6,500 to 24,768. In 2017 alone, exemptions jumped by 25 percent.
Hard to believe measles and other childhood diseases are making a comeback 64 years after Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine and 58 years after Albert Sabin put it in easy oral form.
The Salk-Sabin vaccine ended the threat of polio epidemics in this country. Soon after came a measles vaccine (in 1963), a mumps vaccine (in 1967) and a vaccine for rubella (commonly known as German measles, in 1969). Those three were merged into the MMR vaccine a couple of years later and were routinely administered through general vaccination to American schoolchildren.
Thus was a set of childhood diseases virtually eliminated in this country. The brilliance of scientific study combined with the mathematical logic of mass immunization programs created something of a modern miracle: mankind overcoming a disease of nature.
Florida state law requires a full series of shots for children entering day care or public school. Kids get immunizations for diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis (known as Dtap), polio, measles, mumps and rubella; chickenpox, hepatitis B and pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13) and haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
However, exemptions based on religious grounds provide a loophole and a crack in the wall protecting the wider community from highly contagious viruses. And, no thanks to viral misinformation campaigns on the internet, experts believe many of the opt-outs are not for sincerely religious grounds, but instead skittish parents frightened by pseudo-science and downright fake news spread like a virus through social media.
As University of Florida medical ethicist Bill Allen recently told the Tampa Bay Times, “If parents don’t want to vaccinate because they think vaccines cause autism, they’ll claim a religious exemption.”
It’s wrong, but authorities can’t really determine the validity of an individual’s professed religious belief. So we’re left with a loophole that increases the risk for others. The possibility of individual adverse reaction does exists, but the chances are infinitesimal. On the other hand, the more children skip vaccinations the more the risk for the general population.
That’s why public vaccination programs are all-encompassing. Individually, we assume tiny individual risks in order to promote the widespread health of all in the community.
Nevertheless, there will be some who refuse and, unfortunately, an increasing number who ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence and believe vaccines are harmful because they read bogus reports on the internet. It’s fake news that can have real-life repercussions.