There’s a measles outbreak in Washington State. Why are we still debating whether to vaccinate our kids? | John L. Micek

March 5, 2019 1:32 pm

Four years ago, in February 2015, state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, launched what seemed like a pretty common-sense quest.

Schlossberg, teamed with then-Rep. Becky Corbin, R-Chester, to co-sponsor a bill that would have eliminated language in state law allowing parents to opt out of mandatory vaccinations for philosophical reasons.

As The Morning Call reported at the time, the philosophical exemption was the most common exception granted by the state Health Department. It also helped put Pennsylvania in the ranks of the bottom five states where children are immunized for measles, mumps and rubella, the newspaper reported.

Facing pushback even among fellow Democrats, the bill never got out of committee. And Pennsylvania remains in the company of 16 states that allow parents to skip vaccinating their kids for philosophical reasons.

All these years later, Schlossberg is still slapping his forehead over the stubborn endurance of the so-called “anti-vax” movement.

“There is an astonishing lack of understanding about science in a variety of areas, like climate change and vaccinations,” Schlossberg said Tuesday.

“I don’t tell plumbers and electricians how to do their jobs,” Schlossberg added, noting that the same can’t be said about the critical — and deeply personal matter — of our children’s health. “The evidence is overwhelmingly clear. Vaccines do more good than the occasional harm.”

I was reminded of Schlossberg’s ill-fated push courtesy of The Washington Post’s James Hohmann and his Daily 202 newsletter:

“The resurgence of measles across the United States is generating growing bipartisan alarm on Capitol Hill, where the Senate will hold a hearing today about how the government can better combat anti-vaccination conspiracy theories that are putting lives at risk.

“It’s an especially important topic for Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the health committee. Her home state of Washington has had 71 confirmed cases of measles since the start of the year. “Diseases aren’t stopped by borders, or walls or bans,” she plans to say in her opening statement. “They are stopped by doctors and nurses – by vaccines and public health awareness.”

“Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, will also stress the importance of aggressively promoting vaccinations.

“There is a lot of misleading and incorrect information about vaccines that circulates online, including through social media,” Alexander will say in his opening statement. “Here is what I want parents … to know: Vaccines are approved by the FDA and meet the FDA’s gold standard of safety. … Vaccines save lives – the lives of those who receive vaccines and the lives of those who are too young or vulnerable to be immunized.”

Let’s spend a couple of minutes dwelling on that last line. In fact, let’s repeat it for the sake of emphasis:

“Vaccines save lives – the lives of those who receive vaccines and the lives of those who are too young or vulnerable to be immunized,” Alexander said.

How do we know this is true?

Because, science, that’s why.

“In the decade before 1963 when a vaccine became available, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years of age,” a very helpful explainer on the Centers for Disease Control’s website reads. “It is estimated 3 to 4 million people in the United States were infected each year. Also each year, among reported cases, an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles.”

Then, in 1954, two physicians, John F. Enders and Dr. Thomas C. Peebles, began working on a measles vaccine. By 1963, Enders and his colleagues licensed the first measles vaccine. Five years later, in 1968, a second vaccine improved on the original. It’s been the only in use in the United States since then, according to the CDC.

Did it work?


“Measles was declared eliminated (absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months) from the United States in 2000. This was thanks to a highly effective vaccination program in the United States, as well as better measles control in the Americas region,” the CDC’s website reads.

Yet, here we are in 2019, and the percentage of children aged two years and younger who have received no vaccinations at all has quadrupled since 2001, The Post reported, again citing CDC data. This, despite the fact that a new study has further reinforced the fact that the measles vaccine doesn’t cause autism (the main argument by those opposed to vaccinating their kids).

How’d that happen?

“The recent upswing in vaccine skepticism and outright refusal to vaccinate has spawned communities of under-vaccinated children who are more susceptible to disease and pose health risks to the broader public,” The Post reported last October.

That’s been made easier by state laws, like Pennsylvania’s allowing parents to claim religious or philosophical exemptions for vaccinations.

And guess what? In states that allow those exemptions, five have seen major measles outbreaks since 2013, The Post reported.

When my daughter was born in 2005, my wife and I didn’t think twice about getting her the standard suite of measles-mumps-rubella vaccinations — along with every other round of immunizations that her pediatrician recommended.

And that was a no-brainer. Why?

Because, while my wife and I consider ourselves pretty well-educated folks, we recognize that physicians with years of training and experience simply know more than we do. And we trusted in their expertise.

Also, my daughter didn’t get measles. Or chicken pox. Or any of the other illnesses she was immunized against.

The problem now, of course, is that, thanks to the explosion of information on the web, most Americans think they know better than every expert out there. That’s hardly ever the case.

It’s a phenomenon that Tom Nichols, a one-time staffer to the late U.S. Sen John Heinz, R-Pa., and a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., captured so ably in his 2017 book “The Death of Expertise.”

On nearly every issue, from vaccines to the most outlandish political conspiracy theories, “the bigger problem is we’re proud of not knowing things,” Nichols writes. “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of any public policy issue, is an actual virtue.”

A post-script: If there was an upside to Schlossberg’s and Corbin’s efforts, it’s that it prompted the state Department of Health to shrink its vaccination grace period from a truly preposterous nine months to just five days. And “vaccination rates have climbed since,” Schlossberg noted.

That’s encouraging news. But it’s still not enough. It’s 2019. We shouldn’t be debating whether our kids need to be vaccinated.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.