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Editorial: Measles surges again as it finds a weak spot: Anti-vax parents

Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

If a disease were striking children, causing rash and fever and sometimes escalating to brain swelling, pneumonia and even death, there would be a public demand to do something about it.

America did, and measles was declared eradicated here in 2000.

Now the malady is back in Illinois and at least nine other states, with two cases in downstate Champaign and an alarming breakout in the Pacific Northwest, where the governor of Washington has declared a state of emergency.

Blame a stubbornly resistant anti-vaccine movement driven by dangerous pseudoscience and the worst impulses of obsessive overparenting. "I know what's best for my child!" anti-vax parents say, and measles spreads.

The World Health Organization warned Thursday of a dramatic rise in measles cases globally as parents reject vaccines for their children. In Europe, measles cases reached their highest level in a decade in 2018. Outbreaks have hit the Philippines and Madagascar. In a world of global travel, these aren't distant concerns. A monthslong series of cases in New York has been traced to an unvaccinated child who caught the disease on a trip to Israel.

Measles can cause lifelong effects including deafness. It is ugly, with its blotchy, fevered spots, some of which leave permanent scars. It's highly contagious and miserable to experience.

A worried anti-vaccinations parent posted on Facebook to ask whether there were any precautions she could take to protect her 3-year-old from a measles outbreak. Ah yes, if only there were a way. She was rightly given a social media spanking.

Measles vaccine is 97 percent effective after two doses, which usually also protect against mumps, rubella and sometimes varicella, or chickenpox, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A well-vaccinated population takes on a "herd immunity" that hinders outbreaks. Some states, including Washington, allow parents wide latitude in skipping the vaccine. The Washington legislature is now rethinking that.

"Thankfully, we live in a highly immunized community," Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, told the local News-Gazette. "That's why it doesn't go wild like a brush fire."

Watching plump, pure baby flesh pierced and feeling trepidation about how the child's system will react can be legitimately nerve-wracking for a parent. That's no license to avoid a medical necessity that protects child and community. The right to resist comes with a corresponding responsibility to back up that impulse with rigorous research.

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Once more: Both studies that purported to find a link between vaccines and autism have been thoroughly discredited. There is no evidence connecting the two.

Seeking a second opinion may sometimes be wise. Opting out of sound medicine and public health policy in favor of conspiracy theories is not.

"All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunization should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible," children's author Roald Dahl wrote in a 1980s essay promoting vaccination. His daughter Olivia, to whom he dedicated "James and the Giant Peach," died of measles-induced encephalitis at age 7.

Dahl was onto something. Illinois is among states that allow "mature minors" a voice in their own medical care. Children of anti-vax parents are visiting websites like Reddit to seek advice on how to get vaccines all by themselves.

Now that's some healthy skepticism of unwise parenting.

(c)2019 Chicago Tribune

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