While I am not yet a parent myself, many of my friends are preparing to send their children to school for the first time. I hear them agonizing over which school district they’d like their kids to attend, which parent’s schedule is ideal for shuttling kids to and from daycare and even what school supplies a three-year old will be required to bring on the first day. But for my Californian friends, one of the most critical school decisions is about to be eliminated; on July 1, 2016, the state of California will join Mississippi and West Virginia as the third state to eliminate philosophical, personal and religious vaccination exceptions. The legal action by Californians to tighten public health and safety law comes at critical time, when many parents’ decisions have led to a resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases across the United States.
Vaccination mandates are passed and enforced at the state level. While every state requires that children above the age of one receive vaccinations, 47 states allow for religious, philosophical, and personal vaccination exemptions. All 50 states allow for medical exemptions for those who are too sick to be immunized. Non- medical exemptions (NME) have increased in 32 states since 2009 and some states have even doubled the number of NMEs since 2006. As a result, the U.S. is seeing vaccine preventable diseases making a frightening reappearance. For example, the CDC reported 319,124 cases of measles in 1950. That number dropped steadily to an all time low of 37 nation wide in 2004. Since then, incidents of measles have been increasing almost every year; in 2014, a staggering 667 cases were reported to the CDC. Other vaccine preventable diseases are showing similar trends, slowly increasing in cases since the early 2003 after dropping steadily for half a century.
Parents seeking exemptions for their children (outside of medical reasons) are risking the health and lives of their community as well as their own children. As an increasing percentage of the population receives vaccinations for common diseases like polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), tuberculosis, pertussis, and tetanus, the possibility of transmittal to even those “not vaccinated (such as newborns or those with chronic illnesses)” decreases substantially. This level of population protection is called herd or community immunity. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in order for a population to reach this protective level, 95% of a population must be vaccinated against these once common diseases. With fewer children receiving vaccines, our exposure and risk of contracting perfectly preventable diseases continues to increase.
In 2009, the Association of Schools of Public Health conducted a study, which detailed reasons parents would delay and refuse to vaccinate their children and therefore seek a NME. According to the study, the top reason parents delayed and refused vaccinations for their children was “too many shots”. While I understand it must be difficult for parents to watch their child experience pain, I am confident most heath care providers would agree that a series of shots is better than the alternative; that is, their child getting life threatening but perfectly preventable diseases. The study continues, stating 58.7% of parents questioned the effectiveness of the vaccines, which, quite frankly, is preposterous; if a reduction of occurrence in vaccine preventable diseases by 99% in the last 100 years does not convince parents of vaccine effectiveness, I’m not sure what will. Finally, the argument suggesting vaccinations are a direct cause to autism was the reason cited by 57.1% of parents in this study for not vaccinating. If you are a parent who still believes this, look no farther than the paper published by Andrew Wakefield in the medical journal, The Lancet. In extra-large red font, the first thing you will notice is the word RETRACTED. Dr. A.J. Wakefield published his study in 1998, which found a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. Fortunately, other researchers quickly brought into question his findings as he had such small sample group (12 children) and questionable methods. Colleges and co authors distanced themselves after, as the New York Times reported, a medical council in England found “that Dr. Wakefield had been dishonest and that he had violated ethical rule.” Dr. Wakefield was barred from practice in 2010.
While many assume the lack of preventative public heath care in the form of systematic immunization is due to ignorance and lack of education, the data proves the contrary. The aforementioned Association of Schools of Public Health study found that of parents who delayed and refused vaccinations for their children, the largest percentage had finished college, were married, had private insurance, were over 30 years old and had an annual household income between 125% and 400% of the federal poverty level. So this disregard for family and public health by some is not due to a lack of availability and dissemination of public health information; it suggests poor decision-making by educated parents.
California’s newest vaccination mandate is the latest in a push towards maintenance of public health through vaccination and protection from preventable diseases. While some parents maintain it should be their right to choose the health and preventative measures for their children, their decision represents a lapse in sound judgment, as their decision does not just affect their own child. The parents who ignore state mandates and the CDC are choosing to put the lives of their family and the entire community at risk.
This article was written by Erin Benton, a writer for dusk magazine.