Anti-vaccination crowd endangers everyone

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By Matthew Tessler and Tess Woosley

We are privileged to live in a country where vaccines against deadly diseases are readily available to everyone. These vaccines and public health initiatives in the 20th century led to the elimination of harmful, common diseases like polio and, in 2000, measles. Yet in recent years there have been several measles outbreaks in the United States — the most recent one linked to Disneyland in California.

While the United States is relatively disease-free compared to many other areas of the world, these recent outbreaks show that our vaccine-bolstered health cannot be taken for granted. The anti-vaccine campaign, spurred by a now-retracted 1998 paper that falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism, has had a massive effect in California. The state allows religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines, creating concentrated pockets where vaccination rates reach only 90 percent — including Orange County, where Disneyland is located. As vaccination rates fall, the herd immunity that protects the unvaccinated or susceptible dissipates.

Unfortunately, some conservative politicians have responded to the Disneyland outbreak by campaigning for votes. Fringe opinions that contradict proven science are given a national platform when politicians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul mention anecdotal cases of vaccines supposed relation to mental disorders. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie commented that parents should have a choice, despite the fact that many anti-vaccine parents have proven they cannot make the right one. Christie has since backtracked and said that, at least with diseases like measles, there is no question kids should be vaccinated. But the initial statement — the dangerous one — caught the most press.

President Barack Obama is right; kids need to be vaccinated. As the 2016 election cycle kicks off, politicians must at least be united against the threat of terrible diseases. Living in a society as healthy as the U.S. is not a right — it is a privilege. Our society is safe against preventable diseases because scientists and politicians worked together to make it so. Personal belief exemptions to vaccinations cannot be allowed, or else we risk falling down a slippery slope.

While measles was eliminated here, it is still common in nearly every other country. Hundreds may have been exposed to measles in Penn Station on Jan. 25 when a sick Bard College international student took the Amtrak after returning to New York City from Germany. New York state only allows vaccine exemptions for religious reasons, but the consequences could be dire if vaccination rates were lower or the student attended college in California. These exemptions would be to blame, just as they are at fault for causing the Disneyland outbreak. When lives are at risk, it’s time to step up and ban personal belief exemptions.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 5 print edition. Email Matthew Tessler and Tess Woosley at [email protected]