Modern medicine is often cited as the most important human achievement. At the forefront of modern medicine is the advent of vaccines. Vaccines have almost completely eliminated diseases like Polio and Measles. Smallpox killed an estimated 500 million people during the 20th century alone but today has been almost completely eradicated by vaccines.
It’s hard for many to understand why anyone would have a problem with such progress but a small and vocal group of people do. This group of people, collectively referred to as the Anti-Vaccination movement, link vaccines to all of sorts problems, but most notably they allege vaccines cause autism. The entire movement has its roots in a widely debunked 1998 essay. Since then, the movement has only grown, in spite of the fact their claims have no basis in science. Today, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey lead the charge against vaccines.
Unfortunately, the claims of the Anti-Vaccination movement seem to be gaining traction. Government officials have recently begun catering to anti-vaccination ideas. Even President Trump has implied a link between vaccines and autism… much to the chagrin of his own experts. Many states and schools are now allowing students to skip vaccines for religious or ideological reasons. And right on cue, the country has seen an uptick in preventable infectious diseases.
Another common claim among anti-vaxxers is vaccines are unnecessary because many diseases have already been eliminated. But in fact, it only seems that way because of something called “herd immunity.” The concept of herd immunity dictates that if a high enough percentage of a population is immune to a disease then the rest of the population is effectively immune as well. However, the key part of this concept is that a large percentage needs to be immune. If people stop getting vaccinations for whatever reason, such as buying into the narrative of the anti-vaccination movement, then herd immunity disappears. This was the case this past October in Minnesota.
Minnesota had its largest measles outbreak in 30 years. Anti-Vaccination groups have aggressively targeted skeptical Somalian immigrants in the Minneapolis area with measurable success. So not unsurprisingly, the measles outbreak disproportionately affected Somali-American children.
But this isn’t simply the fault of Jenny McCarthy and her Anti-Vaccination zealots. It is also the fault of the states and schools for allowing people to choose whether or not they will allow their kids to get vaccinated. As of 2016, Minnesota was one of the few states that allowed both religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccinations. Other states have not learned from Minnesota’s poor example. Political groups in the southwest have put Texas at a higher risk for a measles outbreak because of the large number of children who are taking advantage of the state’s “conscientious exemption” to get around vaccination requirements.
Schools allowing students to remain unvaccinated now can have disastrous effects decades down the line. Michigan and Kentucky are in the midst of a hepatitis A outbreak now because of a combination of poor hygiene and soft vaccination requirements in the past that left many adults without ever having received the vaccine. The hepatitis A vaccine was only created in 1995. Obviously many people alive today were well past school age at that point, but many were not and some states like Indiana didn’t require a vaccination against the highly contagious disease until 2014. Now, they are paying the price.
Some school districts are overhauling their vaccination efforts, and some are even requiring them like they should have all along. Jefferson County Public schools in Louisville, Kentucky will require students to produce proof of a hepatitis A vaccine to attend school during the 2018-19 school year. Such a requirement is long overdue, but it's certainly progress that should be applauded…even if it took an outbreak of a preventable contagious disease to get to that point.