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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Autism not bad, unlike measles

Now that it’s the 21st century and people have forgotten how horrible diseases like the measles were, the anti-vaccine movement is working to bring those diseases back — but that doesn’t mean they should simply be allowed to do so.

In 1998, a now-discredited study by Andrew Wakefield claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was directly linked to autism in children. The study kicked off the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, or anti-vaxxers.

In 2000, measles was officially eliminated from the U.S., yet in 2014, there were 644 documented cases of the disease from 27 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reason is two-fold: Not every other country has eliminated the disease, so a few cases enter the U.S. each year, and the number of people who are not getting vaccinated is increasing, making it easier for those cases to spread. This process is enabled by the fact that the federal government doesn’t require vaccinations.

Instead, individual states are allowed to make their own policies regarding vaccination. While all states require public school students to be vaccinated, many states allow for religious or personal exemptions. The anti-vaccine movement, especially in California, takes advantage of these to not vaccinate their children.

This wouldn’t be a problem if everyone else was vaccinated. As it turns out, however, everyone else can’t be vaccinated. Medical exemptions are given for children who may be allergic to the vaccine or have cancer or other immunological conditions. In addition, children less than a year old can’t receive the vaccine, and some people fail to develop lasting protection.

This means that choosing not to get vaccinated is not just a personal issue — it’s also a public health issue that the government needs to take care of.

Vaccines can’t be truly successful unless everyone is vaccinated so diseases don’t get a chance to spread. When parents choose not to get their kids vaccinated because Jenny McCarthy told them their kids will get autism, they are not only endangering their kids but also large swathes of innocent people and children.

One solution is to end personal vaccination exemptions from public schools. Schools sometimes ban nuts to protect students with nut allergies, and banning unvaccinated students who can medically be vaccinated is no different. Those students pose a public health risk, and the rest of the school shouldn’t have to pay.

In fact, according to The Washington Post, Mississippi and West Virgina already only allow medical exemptions to vaccine requirements. Both states have had no outbreaks in the last seven years, unlike the rest of the country are increasing.

Some, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, attest that government must find a middle ground between a parent’s right to choose to vaccinate and the public health. This isn’t legally true, though. In the 1944 Supreme Court case Prince v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court said religious freedom “does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death,” and this decision has been upheld in recent years.

The federal government is in charge of protecting the public health and has the legal power to do so. There is no compelling reason not to do so, except to expose innocent people and children to diseases that can be easily prevented.

Mandating vaccines, though, wouldn’t attack the underlying notion of the anti-vaccine movement: that it is better for a child to contract a disease that could potentially kill them than be autistic. In an article titled “Vaccine Critics Turn Defensive Over Measles” in The New York Times, one anti-vaxxer mother asked, “Do you want to wake up one morning and the light is gone from her eyes with autism or something?”

To be clear, no vaccine can cause autism. But as long as that lie continues to circulate, the only real way to kill the anti-vaccine movement is to spread education and awareness about autism, which does not make someone less human or take the “light” from their eyes. Though more difficult than simply ending personal exemptions, this should be the goal of any movement against the anti-vaccine movement: not just to increase vaccination rates, but to destroy the assumption that autism is worse than vaccine-preventable diseases.

When parents choose to not vaccinate their children, that isn’t the problem itself — it’s only the result of the problem. The problem is a lack of medical awareness about both vaccines and autism, a problem that the government can start to solve with coordinated public health campaigns. Ending personal exemptions is a good step, but let’s not focus on the symptoms and ignore the disease entirely.

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Ashwin Mehra in a physiology major. Follow him on Twitter.

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