NEW YORK —Young parents in America are holy and not to be messed with. If they say something is correct, we all acquiesce. And is there any man, woman or canine who doesn’t leap out of the way when one of those giant, all-terrain Bugaboo strollers comes barreling down the sidewalk?
The impulse to butt out of parents’ business is natural. Our culture hardwires us to respect those who are rearing children. We gave them a job to do, so we should let them do it.
Yet there’s one smug subgroup whose sense of entitlement endangers the rest. No, not poor Medicaid moms or Social Security grannies. The treacherous group is those parents, predominately those of some financial means, who refuse to vaccinate their children.
Anxiety about vaccinations starts with a legitimate concern: the medicine can cause allergic reactions. General worry became specific controversy in 1998, when the Lancet, a respected medical journal, published a paper by British physician Andrew Wakefield and others saying that the standard vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella might cause autism.
Later studies couldn’t confirm Wakefield’s findings, and the Lancet retracted the paper in 2010.
Yet many parents still won’t vaccinate their kids. Some people in the United States have made an avocation of trying to secure a so-called personal belief waiver to allow their children to attend school without vaccines. Parents of autistic youngsters turned to the courts to blame drugmakers.
Fortunately, the anti-vaccine crowd’s ability to create public-health problems was limited by the federal government’s National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It compensates those injured by certain vaccines while discouraging large class-action lawsuits. This, in turn, frees drug companies to concentrate on new vaccines for illnesses such as cervical cancer.
Still, skipping these preventive steps has become trendy. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, fanned the fires by coyly refusing to say whether their youngest child was being vaccinated on the usual schedule. Actress Jenny McCarthy has done her part to inspire the no-vaccine movement with an ad campaign.
Paul Offit, a physician and vaccine expert who is author of “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All,” noted that in recent years there have been “whole school classes where no child is properly vaccinated.”
In Marin County, Calif., officials recently reported that 7 percent of children in kindergarten there had vaccine waivers, compared with 1 percent elsewhere. Nationwide, it turns out that poor parents are more sensible. Paul Howard and James R. Copland, scholars at the Manhattan Institute, report that 91.2 percent of Medicaid children receive the measles-mumps rubella vaccine compared with 90.6 percent of children in private health plans.
The sad results are already in.
An unvaccinated boy from New York contracted mumps while in Britain, then traveled home and attended summer camp. Within six months, hundreds of cases of mumps were counted, including some that led to pancreatitis, deafness and meningitis, Offit wrote. A child in Minnesota died of Haemophilus B influenza after his parents opposed vaccinations. In January 2008, an unvaccinated child flew home to San Diego following a trip to Switzerland, and gave the gift of measles to dozens of others, including three children in a doctor’s waiting room.
Non-vaccinators aren’t merely endangering their own children, or even other children whose parents oppose vaccination. All newborns must wait several months to be old enough for vaccinations. Vaccines are often too risky for people with compromised immune systems, regardless of age. It’s newborns and chemotherapy patients, already physically vulnerable, who pay the price for parental NIMBYism.
You can make a creepy Darwinist argument that this problem is self-correcting. In chastened California, that’s already happening. Last fall then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring junior and senior high school students to receive a vaccine for pertussis, or whooping cough, a highly contagious bacterial disease.
There is no self-correcting dynamic when it comes to diseases for which there isn’t yet a vaccine. Within a few months the Supreme Court will decide whether the federal government’s no-fault vaccine-compensation program can preempt all vaccine-defect claims. If the court says the program doesn’t have that power, drug companies may become less interested in developing new vaccines.
That might dash hopes for a new cholera vaccine, much hoped-for in Africa, and also an innovation the entire globe longs for: a vaccine against sanctimony.
Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations is a Bloomberg News columnist.