The measles do not seem like a fun time. Neither does diphtheria, polio, whooping cough, the mumps, or chickenpox. Thankfully, I can’t speak from personal experience with these diseases, as I was vaccinated from them as an infant or as a young child. Thousands of Maine children, however, may not be as lucky as I was: their parents chose not to vaccinate them, and now some of these diseases are experiencing a comeback.
In December, somebody with the measles visited Disneyland. Measles, being an incredibly contagious disease that infects about 90 percent of the non-immunized who come into contact with it, proceeded to infect dozens of tourists who expected to leave the happiest place on earth with nothing more than a set of mouse ears. To be fair, some of these people were too young to be vaccinated, but most were unvaccinated because their parents decided they’d ignore science, trust the words of a Playboy bunny over those of their pediatrician, and effectively play dice with their children’s health.
Maine has the fifth-highest vaccination opt-out rate in the country, “bested” only by Oregon, Idaho, Vermont, and Michigan. Nearly 800 kindergarteners enrolled in Maine’s public schools in the 2013-14 school year were unvaccinated, which comes out to 5.2 percent of all kindergarteners. This is an increase from 3.9 percent the previous year. Thirty of these children were not vaccinated due to religious reasons, and the other 766 children were not vaccinated due to “philosophical” reasons. Maine is one of 19 states that allow for parents to claim a “philosophical” opposition to vaccines. Every state except Mississippi and West Virginia allows for parents to refuse vaccines due to religious objections.
A largely vaccinated community results in herd immunity, and protects the small number of people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, are too young to be vaccinated, or who are immunosuppressed. This herd immunity is reduced, however, when percentages of the population decline to be vaccinated. Maine has seen outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) in recent years. While pertussis isn’t normally deadly to adults, the illness can (and does) kill infants who are too young to receive the immunization against it.
This phenomena, unfortunately, is not unique to Maine. While the United States went from having around 100,000 cases of pertussis in the 1940s prior to the advent of the vaccination against it to barely over 1,000 cases in 1976, the disease has rebounded. Over 48,000 people were diagnosed with pertussis in 2012. A graph of cases reported in California forms an unsettling upside-down bell-curve as the number of cases reported in the 2000s is roughly equivalent to the 1940s.
I understand that new parents want what they feel is best for their child, and that parents fear doing anything that could potentially harm their child. Their choices, however, could spread diseases and harm other people’s children. Some doctors are refusing to see patients who are unvaccinated, as their waiting rooms could spell disaster for a young baby or chemotherapy patient. The 2015 outbreak of measles must serve as a wake-up call to Maine parents that these diseases have not yet been banished to the annals of history and can come back at any time.