Americans overwhelmingly want each other to vaccinate their children. In a recent survey, roughly 8 out of 10 Americans agreed that “parents should be required to vaccinate their healthy children against preventable diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella and polio.” More than that, 65% of respondents thought that schools should be able to refuse admission to unvaccinated children. That’s a pretty hearty majority that thinks vaccines are a good idea.
Medical professionals agree with the rest of us. Recently, 92% of physicians surveyed agreed that it was important that all recommended vaccines be given at the recommended times. And 66% of doctors agreed that delaying vaccines would lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease.
So if most of us, professionals and non-professionals, agree that the recommended vaccines should be given to kids on time and a strong majority agree that schools should, at the very least, be able to refuse kids during a disease outbreak, you would think that passing a law aimed at doing just that would pass easily. I mean, finally, there is something that the majority of Americans can agree on AND it’s an idea with overwhelming scientific and medical support. Easy peasy, right?
Not so fast. Enter the loud (and potentially dangerous) minority: the anti-vaccine movement. This small, but very organized and vocal, minority movement is having a lot of success getting proposed state laws with sensible vaccine requirements killed before the bills can even be heard by state legislators. Take Oregon Senate Bill 422. Oregon happens to have an unhealthy number of unvaccinated kindergarteners. In one county, 10.4% of public school kindergartners have not received a single MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. To achieve herd immunity (you remember: the more people immunized in a community, the better protected the entire community) against measles you need 95% of the community to be immunized. If over 10% of kindergarteners in a community aren’t vaccinated, then that’s less than 90% of 5 year olds who are playing together, snotting on one another and stealing each other’s lunch. And that, my friends, is not sufficient for herd immunity.
Given the fact that Oregon has the unvaccinated problem, it was great news when Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward proposed Senate Bill 422. Originally, this bill would simply have required that parents who chose to opt out of vaccines, would have to have an exemption signed by a health care practitioner indicating that the parent had been educated on vaccines and nonetheless refused vaccination for their child. At some point, a proposed (not adopted) amendment would have eliminated personal and religious belief exemptions but would have continued to allow medical exemptions from mandatory vaccine requirements. Two other states with this type of strict exemption rule, Mississippi and West Virginia, both have extremely high vaccination rates. And, it is not surprising, that both of these states also have not been hit by the measles outbreak that is hitting other places pretty hard. Mississippi has not had a measles out break since 1992; West Virginia since 1994. Oregon Senator Hayward, who also happens to be a physician, wanted the children of her state protected against a preventable — and very serious — disease.
But Senate Bill 422 never even got to hearings (at which, the notoriously unprofessional and unethical Dr. Wakefield planned to testify). Despite initially having significant support, as the hearing date approached, Senate Bill 422 began to falter. Suddenly, legislators were refusing to offer support for this bill. You can thank the anti-vaccine movement for the failure of a bill aimed at protecting the health of Oregon’s youngest citizens. Because that minority voice of the anti-vaccine movement roared loudly. The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) issued calls to arms for its followers to loudly and vigorously opposed Senate Bill 422 (NVIC often issues marching orders for its followers to defeat any and all pro-vaccine, science-based, legislation). Another anti-vaccine fringe group, Age of Autism (who oddly continues to hail liar and fraud Andrew Wakefield as a hero), issued an “Action Alert” urging the movement to rise up against this proposed law. And, their followers did. Loudly. Angrily. Organized.
And the bill fell.
I get it. This is America and we have the right and privilege of asking our elected officials to listen to our voices and to hear our complaints and concerns. This is a wonderful thing about our democratic system. So, I am not angry about the anti-vaccine movement asking to be heard.
But here is what concerns me and what needs to change. First, the rest of America — the 80% of us who think vaccines should be required for school — need to stand up for ourselves. We need to be calling our legislators and other elected officials and demanding tougher vaccine requirements. We need to be telling our schools that the health of children matters. We need to stop letting the anti-vaccine movement frame the conversation. This is not a discussion about conflicting evidence on whether vaccines work or not. Vaccines work. Plain and simple. This is also not a conversation about conflicting evidence on whether vaccines are safe. They are safe. They do not cause autism. They do not fill your child with harmful toxins or make your child somehow less pure or clean. Finally, this is not a conversation about autonomy versus the government. Unvaccinated children are not given autonomy to make the decision to vaccinate themselves or not. No. This is about a few parents who are making a selfish choice for someone else and with utter disregard for the community around them.
If you, like me, believe that vaccines save lives, then it is time to rise up. If you think that your children deserve to go to school in an environment that will protect them from many dangerous diseases, then speak up. We need science and common sense to prevail over the tyrannical voices of the few.