As a measles outbreak spreads across the US, with 14 states now affected, the advocates of letting deadly epidemics run wild are finding themselves suddenly unpopular:Members of the anti-vaccine movement said the public backlash had terrified many parents. “People are now afraid they’re going to be jailed,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, the president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a clearinghouse for resisters. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It’s gotten so out of hand, and it’s gotten so vicious.”
This is not, to be honest, an unreasonable fear: it turns out that when you recklessly engage in conduct which places another person (or the general public) in danger of death or serious bodily injury, you may well have a reason
to fear that people might want you to go to jail. The technical term is "reckless endangerment." And when people -- especially children -- start actually dying because of your actions, you may well have reason to fear that your neighbors may suggest that you find some other neighbors, starting right away.
The reaction to this outbreak has, however, offered me some real hope. I suspect that as soon as people remember just why people were so terrified of these diseases, the popularity of the "anti-vaccine" movement is likely to plummet, largely at the hands of people who don't feel like being put in mortal danger by their neighbors' fears. Hopefully, this movement will be gone and forgotten before too many people die. (But I want to be honest here: people are going to die. Mostly kids.)
We should recognize that there are real access problems in some parts of the country: the government pays for vaccines but not the doctor's time, and if you get paid by the hour and don't have a car, simply the time to go to
the doctor is a major factor. But we know how to fix these problems: the mobile vaccination stations that helped end the polio epidemic of the 1950's are proof of that.
The best proof by far, though, is that some states are doing a great job to this day. It turns out that the winner is Mississippi,
which has managed to achieve a 99.7% immunization rate for the most serious diseases! They've done this through a combination of a strong public health program and not messing around with their laws. You can read more about what they've done, and how they stack up against other states, at http://wpo.st/QKT20
I suggest a three-point strategy:
(1) Make sure that the CDC-approved vaccine schedule is available to every person. Task an agency with achieving as close to 100% coverage as possible; the only people who shouldn't be getting these are people for whom there is a medical reason not to.
(2) Educate the public about what's going on and why. Don't be afraid to pull out the old videos and show people of just why measles is not a "thing you just get over."
(3) Starting in areas where vaccination is already reliably available, and ultimately spreading to all areas of the country, impose criminal liability for the deliberate failure to vaccinate without medical reason, under existing laws for reckless endangerment and/or child endangerment.
My parents and their generation got to watch their families and their friends die from these diseases. I don't want to do the same.
h/t to +Kyla Myers
for the WaPo article about Mississippi's success. Another very interesting article to read is http://goo.gl/BYp3iF
, from the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, which goes through the reasons why people aren't getting vaccinated and proposes several ways to help fix it. Thanks to +James Salsman
for that one.
Special thanks to +Steve Esterly
for his thorough critique of a previous version of this post, and in particular catching that I had misinterpreted the JAAPA article in a rather important way.