Every hour of every day, 15 people around the world die of the measles. Yes, measles. According to the World Health Organization, “measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.”
This past summer, Minnesota had the dubious distinction of having 79 cases of this highly contagious disease. There were more measles cases in Minnesota than in the 49 other states combined. All in all, this outbreak was one of the largest in nearly 30 years, and it was completely preventable.
Contrary to the horrible headlines that seem to dominate the news these days, we are fortunate to live in these times. Communicable diseases that once routinely caused grieving parents to bury infants and children are nearly eradicated due to vaccinations and other public health improvements. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “vaccinations have prevented an estimated 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths for Americans born between 1994 and 2013.” As a result, most of us would be hard-pressed to even describe the symptoms or the tragic outcomes that descended when an outbreak of tuberculosis or smallpox struck a community.
We were fortunate that no child died during the recent measles outbreak. Since health officials have declared the outbreak to be “over,” let’s use this time to evaluate how this happened and develop a realistic plan so that once-eradicated and communicable illnesses can be avoided in the future.
Minnesota is one of 18 states that “allow parents to refuse vaccination on the basis of personal beliefs.” Under current law, parents can opt out of the state’s vaccination requirements by having a statement signed by a notary saying they object to having their children vaccinated. Many of these parents receive vaccine information not from their pediatrician but from social media outlets where conspiracy theories and general falsehoods about vaccine safety abound. Immunization rates in certain communities, such as Minneapolis’ Somali community, have fallen to dangerously low levels — in Minneapolis where the recent outbreak was centered, that rate was 42 percent as recently as 2014. That is how this outbreak occurred — almost all of these reported measles cases were unvaccinated children.
In 2014, California faced severe outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and measles. Not coincidentally, California had a personal-exemption law similar to Minnesota’s and had seen rates of nonimmunized children double in the six years prior to the outbreaks.
The California legislature did the responsible thing when faced with a public health crisis — it eliminated the personal exemption. Starting this year, parents who choose not to vaccinate their children cannot enroll them in a public or a private school. Their only option is home schooling.
Other states (for example, Washington and Oregon) have changed their immunization requirements to mandate that objecting parents visit a health care professional to receive education about vaccines, the diseases they prevent, and the dangers to the child and to others around them if they choose not to have them vaccinated. The basis for this change is sound: Parents should be exposed to appropriate information about the safety and urgency of vaccinations from a trained, medical professional — not just what they read on Facebook.
Parents of school-age children today were likely born and raised during the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, the measles virus killed an estimated 2.6 million people each year around the world, equivalent to almost half the population of Minnesota. Since that time, enormous public health efforts have increased vaccination levels around the globe — so much so that by 2015, only 73,000 people worldwide died of this virus. That’s a 97 percent decrease in just 35 years.
Minnesotans need to demand action from policymakers rather than wait for a preventable public health tragedy to occur.
Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.
Printed in the Star Tribune, October 13, 2017.