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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

New measles and chicken pox outbreaks in the U.S., and both are linked to vaccine refusal

By Phil Plait

Measles and chicken pox are both dangerous diseases, and both largely preventable. Yet, right now, there’s a measles outbreak in Minnesota and a chicken pox outbreak in California.

Usually, the reasons behind an outbreak can be difficult to trace, but in these cases there’s a reason that’s pretty simple: Parents refusing to vaccinate their kids.

In California, the chicken pox outbreak is in Agoura Hills, a small town outside Los Angeles. Three children of different ages came down with it, and all three attend the same school: the Mariposa School of Global Education. Because of this, students who were not vaccinated against varicella (the virus that causes chicken pox) were told to stay home for three weeks.

What I found staggering about this is this: Out of 400 students at the school, nearly 100 were not vaccinated. That’s a vaccination rate of 75%, which is miserably low (in general, you need rates in the upper 90s to get herd immunity protection to kick in). In the article linked above, one parent of an unvaccinated child is quoted as saying, “I personally believe that vaccines don’t work. I think they are more dangerous than anything. I feel like we are not a threat to the school.”

The thing about a virus is that it doesn’t care what you think, or what you feel. It’ll infect you either way. And that last sentence is downright chilling. The diseases an unvaccinated child could be carrying are not only a threat to that child but also very much a threat to other children in a school, especially one that’s experiencing an outbreak. I’ll note that one of the three students who fell ill was vaccinated; the infection rate among vaccinated people is far lower than unvaccinated (and the symptoms generally much less severe), but it’s not 0.

Curious, I dug into the school a little more, and was not surprised to find out it uses the Waldorf method of teaching. While you can argue whether that pedagogy is actually better or worse than what’s used in most public schools, what is true certain is that Waldorf schools tend to have lower vaccination rates among their students. They don’t have an official anti-vaccination policy, but they strongly lean that way.

I’ll mention here that I am a parent, and knowing what I know now, I’d never let my own child attend a Waldorf school. Even though she is fully vaccinated, no inoculation is 100% effective, and the risk of contracting a dangerous disease is too parents with children at Mariposa are discovering (though, again, given the quote from the parent in the article, maybe some of them won’t discover that).

The measles outbreak in Minnesota is similar, in that it’s due to parents not vaccinating their kids, but in this case the root cause behind that is clear: anti-vaxxers. In this case, according to a Washington Post article (an article you really should read), anti-vax groups have fomented fear of vaccinations, playing up the long-discredited idea that they are linked to autism.

Let’s be very clear: They aren’t. There is no connection between autism and vaccinations, and this has been definitively shown. Vaccines are safe and effective, and a far, far better choice than the diseases they prevent.

As I read the Washington Post article, I was not surprised to see Andrew Wakefield’s name come up. He is the father of the modern anti-vax movement; it was his fraudulent work that led to fears of the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine causing autism. The breadth and depth of his misdeeds are stunning; he was found to have acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” by the UK Medical Council when he was doing his research into vaccinations, he may have faked the results, and was developing his own alternative to the MMR vaccine at the time — a huge conflict of interest, since playing up fears of the MMR could generate many millions of dollars for Wakefield’s alternative vaccine.

So, reading that Wakefield actually traveled up to the area of Minnesota before the outbreak to talk to parents about vaccines and autism comes as no shock to me. It was also no surprise that, when asked about any blame he may have for the outbreak, he is also quoted as saying, “I don’t feel responsible at all.”

Of course he doesn’t. He’s never admitted any responsibility for the aftermath of his offenses, and has, indeed, tried to blame others rather than himself. He may not “feel responsible”, but again, viruses don’t care about your feelings.

And all this is happening against a background of anti-vax support from President Trump, himself, who has courted both Wakefield and noted anti-vax advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who promotes dangerous quackery; I wrote about him here and followed up as well here). It’s not clear what Trump is doing on this front, but given his fervent anti-science tendencies, I can’t imagine it’ll be anything good.

And I can’t imagine it will be good for the children of the United States. History has shown that to us tragically and all too clearly.

I have been vaccinated against preventable diseases my whole life, and my wife and I made sure our daughter got all her vaccines, too (including Gardasil). I strongly urge anyone questioning this issue to read what I’ve written, and then go to a board-certified doctor and ask them about vaccination. Listen to the anti-vaxxers if you must, but when you do, keep Minnesota, California, and all the other outbreaks they’ve caused as well, and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

In my opinion: Not even close.

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Tatiana Shepeleva

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