Anti-vaxxers do their kids no favors

March 12, 2019

Ethan Lindenberger is going places. The young man is smart, believes in the scientific method and isn’t afraid to go against his nearest and dearest when the evidence stacks up. Earlier this month, Lindenberger testified before a U.S. Senate committee, telling lawmakers why he went against his mother’s wishes and started getting vaccinations when he turned 18.

“I grew up under my mother’s beliefs that vaccines are dangerous,” the young man from Ohio testified, according to the Washington Post. But when he realized that his own school viewed him as a threat, he braved his mom’s disapproval and started getting shots to prevent diseases. With vaccinations, Lindenberger no longer had to worry that he might make someone else sick.

His testimony is another reminder that without near-universal vaccinations, the herd protection that keeps people from getting sick begins to vanish. For years, most Americans simply got their vaccinations. Then celebrities began to spread untruths about vaccinations, and otherwise rational people began choosing not to vaccinate their children.

Schools require vaccinations, but states allow parents to opt out for a variety of reasons — medical, religious and the too-vague exemption for “personal, moral or other beliefs.” In New Mexico, the two reasons allowed for parents to skip vaccinating their children are religious and medical. The practice is growing, with state officials reporting last week that exemption requests have increased nearly fourfold over 20 years.

Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb suggested last month that the federal government might have to intervene if states don’t tighten their exemption rules. We think only medical exemptions should be granted, at least through a standard form. Religious exemptions could be done on a case-by-case basis, the better able to block people who just think vaccines are bad, which is often the case in New Mexico. The risk is too great for people who cannot be vaccinated — like babies under 12 months or people with compromised immune systems.

Measles, because it is so contagious, can be spread for as long as four days before someone breaks out in the rash. Pockets of vaccination resisters have resulted in the current epidemic, with the United States counting 200 cases in 11 states, including 70 cases from a Pacific Northwest outbreak.

Deaths are rare in the U.S., but measles killed 110,000 around the globe in 2017 — and those people likely infected someone who traveled here, infecting more people. It can only be managed if the population vaccinates in large numbers, a rate the World Health Organization says should be 93 percent to 95 percent. Globally, the WHO is reporting that measles cases in 2018 are triple the number from the previous year.

There’s some good news in the current outbreak. In Clark County, where most of the Washington state cases are located, vaccinations are skyrocketing. Earlier, the rate for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination was at 70 percent for babies 19 months to 35 months old. In January 2019, though, Vox news reports there was an almost 450 percent increase in vaccination rates from the previous January. The state legislature also is considering reducing the number of exemptions. The message is getting through.

More needs to be done, including by internet companies — Facebook, Google and Pinterest were targeted at a hearing of the American Academy of Pediatrics, with their chief executives told to do more to remove false anti-vaccination information. We’d recommend more public awareness campaigns, especially ones featuring people who remember what is was like to watch a child sicken with polio and measles. Childhood diseases are more than a rite of passage. They cause suffering and pain, even death.

For Lindenberger, learning about the science regarding vaccinations made his decision easy. Finding out what to do was a bit more complicated. He posted on Reddit a few months back asking how to get vaccinated on his own. For others in the same boat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a how-to-list for young people from 7 to 18 who have missed their shots in childhood. In addition to reducing exemptions, we don’t see why young people — even under 18 — shouldn’t be allowed to petition a court to be allowed access to vaccinations.

They’re the ones, after all, who will become sick. Most of their parents have their vaccinations. And that’s the irony. Grown-ups who likely cannot be harmed by contagious diseases are putting their children at risk. That’s no way to care for children.