The Price of Willful Ignorance

For the second time in as many years, the United States has an active measles outbreak. This is inarguably due to elective omission of childhood vaccines. While the national US rates for all required immunizations remains within the bounds of "herd immunity", this is misleading. There are large pockets within the country where vaccination rates have dipped below this level, and unvaccinated children are at risk for contracting vaccine-preventable diseases. I am painfully aware of this; you see, I live in one. More importantly, my young sons live in one. The oldest is school-aged, and he is healthy enough to be fully vaccinated. The youngest is 16 months. He has had a single measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine due to his age. He will not be fully protected for another few months. Last fall, he was an infant with no immunity of his own to measles. We live in the Northeast, and the region had a measles outbreak. Someone else's poor choices cost easily have cost my son his health, his hearing, his eyesight, or his life. The unfairness of that cannot be understated. I am grateful that our pediatrician refuses to see unvaccinated patients, eliminating the possibility of my baby contracting it in the waiting room.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

I was lucky. Many families in Southern California are not. A few weeks back, an as-yet-unknown person went to Disneyland while infected with measles. This single patient infected additional individuals, most of whom were unvaccinated. Many of these were elective omissions, but some were not. Some patients were not vaccinated because they were infants who are too young. There have now been multiple secondary cases, meaning that patients who contracted the disease at Disneyland are spreading it in their communities. This is easily possible: some parts of Southern California have vaccination rates lower than South Sudan.

This is not only absurd. It's grossly unfair. Elective omission of vaccines (in other words, refusing them for nonmedical reasons) is not justifiable. They are among the safest and most effective medical interventions created to date. Despite this, many people will not vaccinate their children (against medical advice) because of rampant fear-mongering by persons without the background to make such judgements. When misconceptions are challenged, these folks are not persuaded. Many simply will not listen to reason. In fact, a recent study showed that these beliefs become more entrenched, not less, when their holders are presented with scientific evidence. This is willful ignorance, and it's dangerous.

It is tragic enough that willful ignorance by parents endangers their own children. When it endangers the health and lives of other children, I suggest it is well past time to stop enabling this nonsense. I am certain that Jennifer Simon, whose infant daughter is under a 28-day quarantine due to exposure to measles at a pediatrician's office, would agree. Similarly, I am sure the same is true of Katie Van Tornhout. Her precious daughter Callie died of pertussis when she was too young to be vaccinated: the very definition of an avoidable tragedy. We can do better than this.

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