EDITORIAL: What’s the threat from measles?

IF YOU HAD MEASLES as a kid you may not remember having them. For most Baby Boomers born before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, measles made you sick and itchy, you stayed home from school until the spots went away and life went on.

Thousands of kids were hospitalized by complications associated with measles–respiratory illnesses and even encephalitis. Some died. Back then my parents wouldn’t have told me about that. Would yours?

There were an estimated 4 million measles cases a year in the U.S. before the vaccine. That’s a lot of illness. It was also a lot of people not likely to get measles again because their immune systems had developed antibodies to the virus. But the vaccine meant you could avoid measles instead of surviving them. This vaccine, now given as part of a cocktail of vaccines against other childhood maladies, transformed measles from a threat to a memory.

There were just 37 cases of measles in the U.S. in 2004, most of them reportedly brought here by foreign visitors or immigrants not already immunized. But more recently there has been an uptick of the illness–664 confirmed cases last year–and now “others” may not be the source. Fingers are pointing at parents who don’t get their kids vaccinated.

It’s hard to assess the individual risk when there was only one confirmed case of measles in all of New York State as of February 6. Unfortunately, that one case was a little too close to home, when it turned out to be a student at Bard College who rode an Amtrak train while contagious. The illness is easily spread and there has been concern stoked by a frenzied coverage in media outlets about a return of measles as a major health threat. The number of new cases is troubling but so is the potential for overreaction.

The most pressing concern for the residents of this state is whether our children are safe from contracting measles after coming into contact with kids or adults who have not been vaccinated. Immunized children won’t get sick even if they are exposed, but measles is a hardy virus that could ride home on the school bus, possibly infecting a younger sibling not yet vaccinated.

Scientists now understand how these bugs work and what can prevent widespread outbreaks of the illness. On the individual level it’s the vaccine, and for larger groups it’s the phenomenon with the catchy name of “community immunity” or “herd immunity. The herd/community can be a village or a state or, perhaps, a school district. And most of the people in the community are vaccinated, the risk drops for everyone and measles has little chance of spreading.

In the Ichabod Crane Central School District, for example, 99% of the student herd… all right, student body… are vaccinated. That makes schools about the safest place your kids can be in terms of exposure to threatening childhood illnesses like measles. Schools achieved a high level of protection because every child who attends a public or private school must be properly immunized. It’s the law. There are only two exceptions: certain rare medical conditions or the “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” of a student’s parents.
There’s no exemption for “philosophical, political, scientific, or sociological objections to immunization” and no requirement that the school administration approve a religious exemption application.

The alternative for parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated is to home school them. Immunization requirements do not apply to these kids unless they participate in public or private school programs.

Unvaccinated home-schooled children do pose some risk to the wider community, but neither state nor federal health officials have offered any data tell us how serious a risk it is. That’s an important point for those of us who support immunization to keep in mind.

Vaccination opponents derive the greatest benefit from community immunity; they’re protected by those who are immunized. But these same opponents are also captives of a trend that rejects science as the foundation of modern knowledge. Instead, they accept the false proposition that each of us can have the science we want and improvise the rest.

The reasons they give for opposing immunization aren’t based on science. But the rebuttal to their arguments shouldn’t depend on anger or a sense of moral superiority. Be informed about the safety vaccines provide. Visit www.cdc.gov and learn about measles. Take time to share the facts with people who don’t know or accept them. They are our neighbors and fellow members of our herd.

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