A doctor performing a typhoid vaccination in 1943- back when Americans listened to their doctors. | Photo: Wikipedia Commons
I’ve gotta be honest. The measles outbreak that’s going on right now in the United States is seriously messed up.
Because I work at Global Citizen, I think a lot about vaccines. Mostly about how to talk about them. Vaccines are one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective ways to save lives, so it’s an easy sell. The challenge has been how to convince people in the global north that there is a sense of urgency in the developing world.
When you grow up as I did in a country where everyone has access to vaccines, that sense of urgency is lost. Vaccines become more of an annoying inconvenience; something you have to check off your list in order to attend a school or accept a job. You don’t even consider their importance because diseases like polio, the measles, and rotavirus are practically unheard of- I get that.
You know what I don’t get? People flat out refusing to vaccinate their kids. People ignoring the advice of doctors, endangering their own children, and putting others at risk. This is what a small percentage of parents are choosing to do across the United States.
Doctor McDreamy always knows best. | Photo: Greys Anatomy
There’s a reason we listen to doctors. While the rest of us were spending our twenties drinking, dating, and making mistakes, these people were in school. For like, EVER. They learned things there. They even passed grueling tests proving their knowledge of said things. And they agree that vaccines are safe, necessary, and effective. Let me rephrase- they KNOW vaccines are safe, necessary, and effective.
So why does a small contingent of people think they know better? I just don’t get it.
Look at what happened last month. In December Disneyland’s rep as the “happiest place on earth” came into question when it was identified as the initial site of a new measles outbreak (terrifying). Now, the outbreak has spread to 67 cases across 7 states. Considering the fact that the US was declared measles-free just 15 years ago, this feels like an enormous step back. How could we allow this to happen?
I’ll tell you how. A small but growing percentage of parents have decided to go rogue, ignoring the advice of experts. Some cite a (non-existent) correlation between vaccines and autism, based on one bogus study from 1998 that has since been disproved (check out Vox’s takedown here). Others opt-out because they feel it’s unnatural. Either way, this is getting ridiculous.
These parents aren’t just putting their own kids at risk; they’re also endangering certain high-risk groups. Young infants, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, and children suffering from leukemia are just some of the groups who can’t take the vaccine for the measles, leaving them extremely vulnerable. They’re also more likely to suffer from complications if exposed to a measles- carrier. Their only precaution is to rely on what’s called herd immunity- the immunity of others around them- for protection. By not vaccinating their kids, these parents are effectively throwing these groups of people out to the wolves. That’s messed up- plain and simple.
Americans, and most in developed nations, have been lulled into a false sense of security because of the shelter of herd immunity. Because we’ve grown up in a society with access to vaccines, the threat of diseases like the measles doesn’t feel real. However, If more reckless parents choose not to vaccinate their kids, outbreaks like this one at Disneyland will become more common, and more dangerous.
Do we really need to be scared straight in order to get with the program? I hope not. Let’s put this “debate” to rest so we can can refocus our attention on extending access to vaccines across the world- the real challenge still facing many.
Still not convinced? Take it away, Hilary!