So now it’s come to this. Proving yet again that despite the unlimited creativity of human ingenuity and the equally unlimited potential of the human spirit, we are unfortunately powerless to stop the destructive power of nature and human ignorance, we have managed to rewind the clock to the early ’90s.
Back when Boyz II Men topped the charts, the Midwest was facing rivers overflowing their banks and the United States was staring down measles outbreaks year after year. It was in 1991 that the vaccine-preventable disease killed nine children in Philadelphia, where I live, but just as people appear stubbornly insistent on continuing development right up to the river’s edge (or to otherwise neglect the maintenance of dams and levees), today a growing movement of parents are stubbornly refusing scientific consensus and neglecting to vaccinate their children.
With the diagnosis of 981 cases of measles nationwide this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, we have surpassed the 963 cases reported in 1992 and are quickly approaching the point where measles, which had been declared eradicated, will be reclassified as active in the most developed nation in the world. And the Jewish community is part of the problem.
For those who don’t know, several of the leaders of the anti-vaxxer movement in the Jewish community call the Philadelphia area home. Several institutions, including schools, have dangerously high levels of unvaccinated children. While some have, since last year, instituted policies to keep such children out of class and synagogue, not all have taken this most necessary of stands. And although we in Philadelphia have yet to experience a single case of the measles, let alone the outbreaks that have plagued communities in and around New York, I fear it’s not a question of if, but of when. Already, there have been five cases of the disease this year in Pittsburgh, and another one was revealed on Tuesday in Meadville, in the far northwest of Pennsylvania.
To be clear, measles is a deadly — and thoroughly preventable — disease, making its resurgence all the more lamentable. Before widespread use of the measles vaccine, an estimated 3 to 4 million people were infected each year in the United States, with an estimated 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations annually. Because there will always be those who cannot be vaccinated, either because of age, depressed immune systems or allergies to specific vaccine components, we rely on the concept of herd immunity to confer benefits even on the unvaccinated. But the system breaks down when parents of otherwise healthy children refuse to vaccinate them, and now we’re reaping the results.
Those on the other side, relying on “science” that has been repeatedly debunked, alternately claim that the measles vaccine in particular causes autism or that vaccines in general are poisons unnecessarily being foisted upon an ignorant populace by a conspiratorial pharmaceutical industry allied with the government. They may be your neighbors, your friends or your family, making their claims all the more difficult to swallow.
They argue that because vaccines are, according to Congress, “unavoidably unsafe,” they should not be given to children. But they misuse a legal term of art in making this claim, conveniently forgetting that most prescription medications are unavoidably unsafe, meaning that manufacturers cannot get rid of the possibility of adverse outcomes. Kitchen knives are also unavoidably unsafe, always having the possibility of causing injury; to get rid of the possibility of someone cutting himself with one would be to render it not a knife, but few people would be willing to start cutting their food with a spoon to avoid the chance.
Now is the time for us to take action. First, we should mandate vaccinations by law, an effort which is currently gaining ground in Harrisburg. There, a bill being pushed by state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-District 17) would remove the availability of philosophical exemptions to vaccinations required to attend school. Second, we should make this an issue in our neighborhoods and communities.
Like the necessity of seatbelts and infant car seats, the resurgence of measles is an issue of public health. But unlike seatbelts and car seats, a parent’s refusal to vaccinate her child doesn’t just expose that child to danger. Because of the possible breakdown in herd immunity, that choice — however well-intentioned — impacts us all. It’s more akin to drinking while driving, a choice that doesn’t just expose a driver’s passengers to danger, but exposes everyone else on the road to the possible consequences of his ill-advised choice.
Some fear that even having these conversations threatens to tear at the fabric holding our community together. I’ll grant that the debate might be uncomfortable, but I trust that we’ll be able to reach a level of mutual respect based on the shared realization that we all want what’s best for our children. As a parent myself, I’m fearful of the day when an infant too young to be vaccinated is exposed to a disease brought here by a child whose parents made the affirmative choice to selfishly throw caution to the wind.
May we never have to face such a nightmare. We’ve come too far as a society to allow that to happen. JN
Joshua Runyan is the former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent.