By Caroline Santoro
When measles broke out in Disneyland in 2015, public health officials received a shocking surprise. Seven out of every ten people infected were unvaccinated, meaning that the outbreak likely would not have occurred had there been higher vaccination rates in the population. Measles is a highly-contagious disease, characterized by a high fever and rash, and it can lead to swelling of the brain, blindness, and even death. By 2013, scientists had already thoroughly discredited the link between the measles vaccine and autism, which initially had caused some concerned parents to delay or avoid vaccinations. A study (linked here) published in The Journal of Pediatrics showed that there were the same amount of antigens, or disease-fighting compounds, in children with and without autism. In spite of this information, immunization rates in some schools in California were still as low as 50% because parents were able to avoid vaccinations, claiming that vaccinating their children violated their personal beliefs. The measles outbreak in Disneyland resulted in much stricter vaccination laws in the United States, such as California’s SB277, which prohibited parents from claiming an exemption due to personal beliefs. SB277 epitomizes the bioethical controversy surrounding compulsory vaccinations in school.
Simply put, immunization works. It prevents 2-3 million deaths every year, and many health professionals regard it as one of the most successful and cost-effective interventions in public health. The World Health Organization reports that measle’s global death rate decreased 79% in the last seventeen years with increased immunization. Immunizations have also been tested extensively and proved safe. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares, “Vaccines are some of the safest medical products available.” Even with those assurances, many Americans still don’t want mandatory vaccinations for school.
Parents’ distrust of vaccines comes from genuine concern for their children, but many of the common myths surrounding vaccines result in unwarranted fear. Some parents believe that their young children’s immune system would be overwhelmed by vaccines, but in reality, waiting to vaccinate only increases susceptibility in young children for whom these diseases might be more serious. Another concern is the ingredients, as some parents worry that vaccines are toxic and unhealthy for children. However, vaccines are mostly water with antigens, and any other ingredients are used only for stabilization. For example, although there are trace amounts of formaldehyde in some vaccines, it is actually less than the amount naturally produced by the human body. Finally, possible adverse side effects are a concern, but after the ten to fifteen years it takes to approve a vaccine, the instances of serious side effects have been shown to be few and far between. Articles disapproving of vaccinations, for example, “Six Reasons to Say NO to Vaccination” by The Healthy Home Economist, fails to address the reality of diseases that unvaccinated children’s bodies cannot fight off alone. Sure, vaccines are not perfect, but in a perfect world, these diseases wouldn’t exist either. When the author says, “I don’t know ANYONE who has not vaccinated and regrets their decision” she reveals only that she has not met parents whose children died from preventable diseases.
It is understandable that parents want to make their own health choices for their children. However, sending children to school without being vaccinated puts other people’s children at risk. “Herd immunity” is the concept that, when a high enough population of the community is vaccinated, everyone can be safe from outbreak. When a large percentage of a community is vaccinated, infected individuals are less likely to find unvaccinated individuals to infect, thereby preventing an epidemic. The percentage needed to achieve “herd immunity” for measles is 92-95%, meaning that nearly the entire community must be immunized in order to avoid an epidemic. In a school where the immunization rate is as low as 50%, herd immunity does not take effect, and in the words of epidemiologist at California’s Department of Health Dr. Gil Chavez, the school becomes the “ideal environment for the virus to spread quickly.”
By requiring vaccination for children attending school, the State gives parents the option of avoiding vaccination by homeschooling, but it protects the safety and health of the children and adults who come into contact with each other through schools. According to the Pingry Student Handbook, all students must have complete immunization records. With this requirement, our community is protected from life-threatening diseases. While it sounds fair to let people choose, the Disneyland case illustrates the consequences to even those who do get vaccinated but are exposed to those who have not. After all, students deserve to come to school every day feeling safe from the risk of fatal communicable diseases.
10 facts on immunization. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2017, from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/immunization/en/
II, R. L., & McGreevy, P. (2015, April 17). California’s measles outbreak is over, but vaccine fight continues. Retrieved September 16, 2017, from http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-measles-20150418-story.html
Six Reasons to Say NO to Vaccination. (2017, June 05). Retrieved October 31, 2017, from https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/six-reasons-to-say-no-to-vaccination/
Tannous, L. K., Barlow, G., & Metcalfe, N. H. (2014). A short clinical review of vaccination against measles. JRSM Open, 5(4), 2054270414523408. http://doi.org/10.1177/2054270414523408
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2006, October 11). Safety. Retrieved September 16, 2017, from https://www.vaccines.gov/basics/safety/index.html