Robert Ehlert: Vaccinated population makes for better, safer world

Childhood vaccination mandates are a tough issue — the tough love of public health and public education. They should be.

Not too many people I know want to see children get measles, mumps or rubella — what the MMR vaccine protects against. This is one of the first and most common vaccines our kids encounter.

Vaccines have risks, but the alternative is scary. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes a rubella epidemic (German measles) in 1964-65that infected 12.5 million Americans, killing 2,000 babies and causing 11,000 miscarriages. In 2012 there were only nine cases.

Recorded cases of measles from 2000 through 2013 — after generations had been vaccinated — have rarely broken the 100-cases-per-year mark. That took a dramatic turn in 2014 when the CDC logged 644 cases in 27 states.

What changed is that the rate of vaccinating our kids nationwide is diminishing. That is a problem. When unvaccinated children are around those who are vaccinated, the ones without vaccines still benefit. But if an unvaccinated child travels to a country where there is higher exposure to unvaccinated kids, the child could return to the U.S. and infect more children than in previous years because there are more susceptible youths in this country now. This is one of the theories about the measles outbreak earlier this year at a California theme park that sickened 188 children in 24 different states.

This should concern us in Idaho because the Gem State vaccinates at a lower rate than many other states — and that balance of protection where the vaccinated protect the unvaccinated is eroding. Among the reasons for that is that Idaho and other states offer waivers for religious, philosophical and medical reasons.

A medical waiver is one thing. But I think a lot of people buy into the other waivers for one of two reasons: First, they reject or ignore the pro-vaccine medical science provided by the CDC, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and their own doctors; second, they seem susceptible to disinformation.

Just last week a Kamiah woman who said she supported the work of the Vaccination Liberation organization circulated a “report” to the members of the Idaho Legislature and media outlets. The email cited a story in the Inquisitr with the headline: “Mysterious EV-D68: Vaccinated Children Could Be More Vulnerable.”

EV-D68 is a nasty respiratory ailment, according to the CDC, that spiked in 2014, affecting more than 1,000 mostly young people in 49 states. Nowhere in the piece was there any support for the headline except for a vague, unsourced statement that “those that have become infected are following a common theme. They have all been vaccinated with the MMR vaccines, influenza vaccines and polio vaccines.”

Now, I’m not a math major, but that ought to cover 90 percent to 95 percent of the U.S. population born since we started vaccinating people. Linking EV-D68 to vaccinated people would be like linking it to people who drink water. A medical professional quoted in the piece is introduced as someone who “has not shared that EV-D68 has only infected vaccinated children.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the anti-vaccination crowd. I just wish I could vaccinate the rest of the world from the disinformation they spread. I am warming to the idea of a vaccination mandate to participate in public education in Idaho, like the one passed in California that takes effect in July 2016. Only medical waivers will be accepted after that.

When it comes to potentially serious health matters, the privilege or right of participating in public education ought to go hand in hand with the responsibility of adhering to baseline public health measures. If getting vaccinated is society’s tough love, so be it.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.