California Forum

Anti-vaccination crowd risks the health of everyone. It’s time for a crackdown

This is why measles is so dangerous

Cleveland Clinic explains how measles comes on, develops, can get complicated and how to prevent the infectious disease.
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Cleveland Clinic explains how measles comes on, develops, can get complicated and how to prevent the infectious disease.

The nation has just made it to a really stupid new record. The official count of measles cases reached 695 this week, up 71 from just a week and a half before.

The record of 667 in 2014 was the highest number since measles was considered eradicated in this country, back at the turn of the century. And now we’ve eclipsed it in less than four months.

California hasn’t been immune from outbreak, with 37 cases as of Wednesday. Yet the complaints are mighty about the state infringing on parents’ right to choose the health care their children get. The state has one of the toughest laws in the nation on vaccination, requiring it of all students in public and private school unless there’s a medical reason why it would be dangerous for them.

Some vaccine doubters take their children to sketchy doctors who sell bogus medical excuses for their children not being properly vaccinated. These parents are now protesting Senate Bill 276, which would put those excuses under state review.

But it’s the current story of an El Al flight attendant that really shows us why the strongest possible vaccination laws are a must, and why “individual choice” can amount to an attack on another person’s health.

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The 43-year-old woman is in a coma because of encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that occurs in about 1 in 1,000 measles patients. Health officials in Israel say that if she makes it through, she’ll have permanent brain damage.

Measles-induced encephalitis is an extreme rarity these days because the measles vaccine made measles itself such a rarity. In the years before 1963, when the measles vaccine became available, measles put 48,000 Americans in the hospital every year. One thousand developed encephalitis annually, and 400 to 500 died. Measles was a deadly scourge, not a harmless disease.

The usual argument for freedom of choice simply flies in the face of what epidemiology teaches us. It’s not as though all people can decide for themselves whether they want to be protected with a vaccine or risk serious illness. That might work if we were vaccinating against diabetes or Alzheimer’s diseases, conditions that people can’t catch from each other. With a contagious illness, especially one as contagious as measles, your illness is everyone’s problem.

Put 100 unvaccinated people in a room where they’re exposed to the measles virus. Ninety of them will get the disease.

Put 100 vaccinated people in the same room. Three of them will get the disease. Even a great vaccine doesn’t work on absolutely everyone.

Three people in 100 isn’t a lot – unless you’re the vaccinated woman in the hospital with encephalitis that you caught from someone who thought it was their inalienable right to sicken others.

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

Then there are the people who can’t be vaccinated against measles even if they wanted to. People with certain autoimmune disorders, people undergoing chemotherapy or others with compromised immune systems generally can’t receive a live-virus vaccine.

The same goes for babies younger than a year, although the vaccine can be given as early as 6 months to those considered at higher risk – like the babies in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in New York where most of this year’s U.S. measles cases have been.

In Israel – a developed nation with universal health care – stubborn resistance to the measles vaccine among ultra-Orthodox Jews has resulted in an outbreak sickening more than 3,000 people. A baby and an elderly woman died. A 10-year-old boy is in a coma.

Meanwhile, a man living in the area of Brooklyn affected by the outbreak took off on a fundraising trip to the Midwest, not realizing he was sick, and infected people along the way. That’s why Oakland County, Michigan, is suffering an outbreak.

Yet the illogical “individual choice” argument goes on. Most people who refuse to vaccinate their children are, in fact, benefiting from the people who vaccinate.

We don’t have the right to spew unlimited toxic pollutants into the air. Individual freedom ends at the line where those choices affect everyone else.

It’s time for a crackdown on this nonsense. Not only should SB 276 pass, but all states should institute laws like California’s. We need stiff punishments for parents and doctors who try to defraud the system.

In addition, many of the outbreaks involved a “Patient Zero” who brought measles from a country experiencing a major outbreak, such as Israel or the Philippines. Travelers should not be allowed into the country unless they have the proper vaccines or are proven to be healthy.

That goes both for the foreigners visiting here and the Americans who travel to areas with large outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease and then return home. The price for their personal freedom should include being held in quarantine, paid for by them, until it’s clear that their choice can’t ruin the health of others.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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