At one time, not so long ago, most children in this country would get measles by the time they were 15. Some 400 to 500 would die each year, and another 1,000 would come down with encephalitis (swelling of the brain). That was before 1963, when a safe and effective vaccine became available. By 2000, after a concerted vaccination campaign, the disease was declared eliminated from the United States.
It would be terrible to see us return to those days, but now — only 19 years later — we are seeing the worst outbreak of measles in a generation, with more than 700 cases reported nationally since January. There has been a notable outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, in an area where the rate of nonmedical exemptions to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is high.
All 50 states allow for medical exemptions to the vaccination of children, and almost all of them also have a process to grant exemption for the religious or philosophical beliefs of the parents. If those were the only exceptions to the rule, the percentage of unvaccinated children would be very low.
Increasingly, though, it seems that parents are opting their children out of getting vaccinated because of an unfounded and scientifically disproved idea that the MMR vaccine somehow causes autism. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have to say about that:
“Vaccines do not cause autism. There is no link between vaccines and autism. Vaccine ingredients do not cause autism.”
Period. No ifs, ands or buts.
And yet, the internet is alive with sites claiming that vaccines somehow cause autism and other problems — an idea promoted, most famously, by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Three members of the Kennedy family are so concerned about this that they just issued a statement. “He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines,” they wrote, with “heartbreaking consequences.”
While a belief in such junk science appears to be the greater threat to public health at this time, the high rate of measles infections among children across the country this year, including in Connecticut, has led a number of states to consider eliminating the religious exemption to the MMR vaccine. California, Mississippi and West Virginia have already done so. Here in Connecticut, a number of lawmakers would like to follow suit, and Attorney General William Tong has already issued an opinion that that would not violate the state constitution.
At this time there is no bill before the General Assembly that would eliminate the religious or philosophical exemption, although there are proposals to change the process. But data released recently by the state Department of Public Health may provide impetus for such a move.
The data show that nearly 100 schools have kindergarten immunization rates below the 95 percent threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide “herd immunity” for the student body and the community in general.
Those include, as recently reported, Hatton School, in Southington, where only 93.4 percent of kindergartners were vaccinated for a range of viruses, according to 2017-18 data.
Although many of those are small, private schools, and some of the paperwork is unclear, “This data is startling and needs to be addressed,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement.
Those who need the protection of “herd immunity” include infants, and others who cannot be immunized for specific medical reasons. No state has removed that type of exemption.
Connecticut’s overall immunization rate is good — around 98 percent — and the state needs to respect the religious beliefs of parents while also finding ways to improve the immunization rate for MMR in the schools where it is inadequate.
It seems to us that education, not legislation, is what’s needed here. Once enough parents understand the need for immunization against certain diseases — and realize that the vaccines are safe — surely they will do the right thing.
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