The New York City Department of Health has confirmed 25 cases of measles since February, about half of them in children. The outbreak began in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx but has spread, with cases recently appearing in the Lower East Side. Doctors are pointing to this as evidence that the anti-vaccination movement has eroded our public health — they thought we had eliminated the threat of measles in this country at the turn of the millennium.
I had, honestly, always considered the anti-vax movement to be so fringe that it wouldn’t pose any significant threat to my son’s health. But then again, I figured the anti-climate change movement wouldn’t gain any traction either, nor would I have anticipated that Creationism would be a topic of debate in school curriculums. These beliefs don’t seem logical in the context of the way I live or view the world. But that’s me: always wanting to believe that people are going to listen to reason and not superstition.
A recent New York Magazine report shows just how wrong I was. Children without vaccinations against measles or polio are no longer on the periphery, they’re here in our schools:
“School immunization data for the 2012-13 school year obtained by Daily Intelligencer from the New York State Department of Health shows that some 245 New York City private schools fell short of the 95 percent vaccination rate which experts say prevents measles from spreading.”
What’s more, the report states that 125 of them had vaccination rates below 90%, and 37 fell below 70%. The lowest rates were in 9 private schools, which only had between 41.5 and 18.4% of kids vaccinated.
Vaccinations protect not just against measles, illness like polio, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and the Haemophilus influenza. Not vaccinating your child doesn’t just put your child at risk, it jeopardizes the health of others. Measles is highly contagious and spreads air born through coughs and sneezes. You could be riding the subway with your baby, or attending a museum with your not-yet-fully-vaccinated 3-year-old, and the child could be exposed. Most people come down with a fever and rash that clears up within a few days, but up to one in three people may experience complications like pneumonia and brain infections. Because it was thought to have been eradicated, some health officials don’t even know how to identify measles when they see it.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene states that, when exposed to the illness, the unvaccinated have a 90% chance of contracting measles. More than 95% of people receive immunity from a single dose of the vaccine, while a second dose provides immunity to almost all of those who didn’t respond to the first one. Anti-vaxxers claim the immunizations can cause autism, and while many provide anecdotal evidence for this, studies do not support their claim. Some parents resist vaccination for religious reasons, which, as a pediatrician put it on Salon, then means that you should be educating your children within your community and not putting other kids at risk by sending them to public school.
Celebrity spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy have provided the anti-vax movement media attention, and perhaps made it seem somewhat glamorous or cutting-edge. In an age when we try to eat organic, purify our bodies of toxins, and have a valid distrust of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s not hard to see why the movement’s gained traction. Distrust of the federal government and a “live free or die” attitude plays a part in this as well. Yet as Jeffrey Kluger puts it on Time Magazine, the movement is based on junk science.
“On [the anti-vax] side we have the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari. Nothing wrong with naked models, TV hosts, and fashion designers, but they’re not, you know, scientists. On the [vaccination] side we have the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and virtually every serious medical journal on the planet.”
Kluger reminds us that it’s not the anti-vax parents who are losing — many of these adults were vaccinated as kids. It’s their children, who will at the least suffer illness and could in fact die. If these outbreaks continue to spread unchecked, it could eventually be everyone’s children who are at risk. It’s perhaps impossible for us to imagine, but at one time many kids didn’t make it to 5 years old, in part because of these diseases. No one wants to return to those kind of dark times. So please, vaccinate your children.