When first meeting a person, their medical records probably aren’t the first thing to cross your mind as you shake their hand. But medical records — specifically immunization records — are on the minds of parents and lawmakers nationwide following a measles outbreak that has struck more than 25 states since the beginning of 2019.
As of May 30, the Center for Disease Control reported 971 cases of measles in the United States in 2019 — the highest number of cases reported since 1994. The highest volume of cases were reported in New York, where the largest measles outbreak in nearly 30 years cost New York City more than $6 million.
The New York outbreak was largely concentrated in an ultra-Jewish community, where misinformation about the measles vaccination ran rampant. Of the 654 individuals who contracted measles in New York City, 73% of them were unvaccinated, with an additional 7% incompletely vaccinated.
But New York was not the only state forced to grapple with the spread of a disease that, in 2000, was declared eliminated by the CDC. Because of the highly-contagious nature of the disease, measles has returned throughout the United States — including in Wisconsin-neighbors Illinois, Iowa and Michigan — in communities with low vaccination rates.
In response to the growing proximity of the measles outbreaks, State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, introduced a bill to end personal conviction waivers for opting out of vaccinations. Personal conviction waivers allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for personal rather than medical or religious reasons. Wisconsin is one of 18 states to provide parents with this option.
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“It’s just a matter of time, given the declining vaccination rate, that we have our own public health crisis in Wisconsin,” Hintz said. “So it’s time for the state to be proactive and do everything possible to get that number up so we have herd immunity and can protect folks.”
While Hintz’s bill has enjoyed bipartisan support in the Wisconsin legislature and is backed by groups such as the Wisconsin Medical Society, it has drawn criticism from parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. There has been no action taken on the bill.
There are numerous reasons parents choose not to vaccinate their children, including the belief in natural immunity, where contracting a preventable disease will ultimately strengthen the child’s immune system, that the dangers of the side effects of vaccines outweigh their benefits and, most notably, that vaccines cause autism.
But the arguments posited by anti-vaxxers are misinformed, false and harmful in the midst of the largest measles outbreak the country has seen in years. For parents to continue sending unvaccinated students to school places their classmates, teachers and innumerable other people in danger of exposure to a disease entirely preventable through modern and safe vaccinations.
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First and foremost, there is no link between vaccines and autism, nor do the ingredients used to make vaccines cause autism. Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in preventing contamination of multidose vials of vaccines, was studied by researchers specifically with regard to the autism-vaccine debate.
Not only did a 2004 review and nine subsequent CDC studies find no causal relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism, but between 1999 and 2001, thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in nearly all childhood vaccines.
It is also not true that contracting measles, or any other preventable disease, is the most effective way of strengthening one’s immune system. Vaccines function by introducing a small amount of weak or dead remnants of a particular disease to spur an immune response. This helps the body remember this disease, so if it ever is present again, the body has a reserve of things to attack it with.
Natural immunity, on the other hand, happens after someone was already sick with the disease, providing that they survive the disease in the first place. This means that they were, at best, moderately ill, they were contagious, and they came into contact with other, healthy people, during the quest to attain this natural immunity.
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When thinking about settings such as school, both K-12 and universities, unvaccinated individuals pose a real threat to herd immunity. In order for herd immunity to effective in relation to measles, 90 to 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated.
During the 2018-2019 school year, about 92 percent of students met the Wisconsin minimum immunization requirements, a 0.4% decrease from the previous year. Of the 8% that did not meet the requirements, 4.6% used the personal conviction waiver.
While 8% is not quite the 10% threshold for measles herd immunity to be ineffective, the numbers are far too close for comfort, and many of the stated reasons for refusing to vaccinate children are far too unsubstantiated by science to be justifiable.
Eliminating the personal conviction exemption in Wisconsin schools and nationwide would work to ensure the safety of vaccinated and unvaccinated students alike. Vaccines are not a negotiable part of back-to-school season if the reasons for not getting them are easily falsifiable.
The goal, this year and every year, should be to keep eliminated diseases eliminated, and this is achieved first and foremost through vaccinations.
Aly Niehans ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.