Measles spikes — here we go again! Repeal religious vaccination exemptions

A cartoon drawing of a child with red dots all over their skin. Their shirt reads "my parents went to the anti-vaxxers and all I got was this measly t-shirt"

It’s déja vu all over again with a new measles spike affecting 18 states, almost half occurring in children under age 5, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Yet measles, one of the most contagious of diseases, is also one of the most easily to contain via vaccination, first introduced in 1963.

Back in 1978, the CDC set a goal to eliminate measles from the United States by 1982. It took a lot longer, but by the year 2000, the World Health Organization declared measles had been eliminated in the United States. Yet here we are. While some cases are brought into the states by unvaccinated travelers, the virus is only finding fertile breeding ground here again thanks to anti-science, anti-vaccination know-nothings who refuse to vaccinate their children. They are helped along by the outrageous fact that 45 states plus Washington, D.C., grant exemptions for people with religious objections to immunizations.

Measles is so contagious that “if one person has it, up to 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected,” the CDC notes. More horrifying, the virus can live for up to two hours after an infected person leaves an airspace, such as a clinic or daycare. That’s why it is everyone’s duty to vaccinate their children against measles, which, of course, also protects those rare individuals who for health reasons cannot get vaccinated. It’s called herd immunity. Unfortunately, it takes a very high vaccination rate, of up to 95 percent, to keep measles from spreading. During the Covid-19 epidemic, vaccination rates for kindergarteners fell to 93 percent and that’s where it’s stayed. “The drop is driven in part by record numbers of children getting waivers,” reports Associated Press.

Measles can kill, and complications occur most commonly in infants, pregnant women, and malnourished or immunocompromised children. Complications include pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). One to three of every 1,000 children who get measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications. One in five unvaccinated persons in the U.S. who get measles is hospitalized. A very rare but fatal disease of the central nervous system, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), can occur seven to 10 years after having measles.

Speaking of long-term consequences from childhood illness, shingles is a commonplace plague, with one out of every three persons in the United States expected to develop herpes zoster. An estimated 1 million people will come down with often excruciatingly painful, blistering and disfiguring sores, often on one side of the torso or the face, and other malaise.

Once someone’s had chicken pox, the herpes zoster virus continues to live in the body, often manifesting in older age. It is a scourge. NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who wrote the memoir Notorious RBG, confides that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, was in chronic pain from repeated shingles infections. Since introduced in the United States in 1995, the chickenpox vaccine has been tremendously successful, reducing the number of annual cases from 4 million a year (with about 12,000 hospitalizations and 100–150 deaths) to fewer than 150,000 cases, 1,400 hospitalizations and 30 deaths a year. Yet there are still those who openly admit to exposing their unvaccinated children as “chicken pox parties,” despite its miserable symptoms, and complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis.

That ought to be considered child abuse. Back in 2019, then-Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin admitted he had made sure every one of his nine children came down with chicken pox, on purpose. His children won’t be thanking him someday if and when they have to endure a shingles outbreak.

While a not very effective vaccine against shingles fortunately has been replaced with Shingrix, a more effective two-dose regimen, the immunization is typically only covered by insurance if you are 50 or older. For under-insured and uninsured, its cost is prohibitive. And it’s a hard-hitting vaccine that most people are laid low by. Clearly, eliminating chickenpox in the first place is preferable.

State legislators must prioritize the repeal of religious exemptions from vaccinations and get the United States back on track as an evidence-based country that prioritizes public health.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) with 40,000 members and several chapters nationwide. It works to buttress the constitutional separation between state and church.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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