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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Opting Your Kid Out of Vaccination? That’s Sickening.

By Phil Plait

Hmmm, it’s been a while since I’ve posted on how anti-vaccination propaganda is making people sick and putting children needlessly at risk for terrible diseases.

[Opens up map, looks around, sees blinking red alarm light over Michigan.]

Ah, Michigan, that bifurcated mitten by the lake. I spent three years at U of M and grew quite fond of it.

But then, I didn’t get measles or whooping cough while I was there.

You have a decent risk of that now, due to low vaccination rates. In Traverse City, a recent outbreak of pertussis forced the closure of a charter school with 1,200 students (there were 10 confirmed cases and 167 probable cases) and infected children at 14 other schools.

Why did this disease hit schools so hard? The reason is almost certainly exactly what you’d think: Vaccination rates for children in schools are low because parents have been opting them out.

Most states have mandatory vaccinations for children to attend public schools, but they also have opt-out waivers for parents who don’t want their children vaccinated for religious reasons … and for “personal reasons.”

This means anti-vaccination reasons. And you know how I feel about that. Virtually every claim made by anti-vaxxers is wrong, or a gross distortion of the truth.  The actual truth about vaccines is that they are extremely effective and their risks are minimal.

I’m not a fan of religious waivers—especially when it comes to health care workers, for example—though I understand that’s a political hot potato (even though, in reality, very few religions forbid vaccinations).

But personal waivers? The more I think about it, the more I come down pretty clearly on it: If your child is able to get vaccinated, and you choose not to do so, then your child should not be allowed to attend public school.

It’s that simple. I’ve made this argument before:

In some areas, public school authorities have mandated that students be vaccinated for various diseases, and that of course can run afoul of parents’ beliefs.  I’ve wrestled with this problem  for a while, and I eventually came to the conclusion that a parent does  not have the right to have their child in a public school if that child is unvaccinated, and for the same reason health care workers should not be unvaccinated. It all comes down to a very simple reality: It puts other children at risk.
If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well, and part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.

When you send your kid to a public school, this is no longer a personal decision. It’s a very public one, and you are putting thousands of people at risk for diseases that can cause grave harm, and even be fatal. And yes, I’m vaccinated, and so are my wife and daughter, but not everyone can get vaccines due to health reasons (people who are immunocompromised, for example). Some babies are simply too young to get vaccines yet, for example, and they are at very high risk for infectious diseases like pertussis and measles.

And that, I am very sad to say, matters very much.

Update (Dec. 15, 2014 at 16:15 UTC): I have just been informed that a new policy in Michigan will start in the new year; parents will have to have their opt-out forms certified by the local health department before choosing not to vaccinate their child (the idea being they will then get more and better information about vaccines). That's a step in the right direction, but in my opinion still doesn't go far enough; if that child attends a public school the result can be serious outbreaks, as we've seen. Thanks to Jamie Mueller on Twitter for the tip.

I have said this before, and as long as we have outbreaks of diseases due to low vaccinations rates I will continue to say it: Don’t listen to the anti-vax rhetoric. They’re wrong. Instead, talk to a board-certified (i.e. non-quack) doctor and find out if you need to get your vaccinations (including boosters) and if you should vaccinate your family.

People shouldn’t be dying because of diseases we can easily prevent. But they are. Do your part.

Thanks to Luke Schmerberg for sending me the news about Michigan.

Update (Dec. 15, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): I changed the phrasing of the sentence about unvaccinated students not being allowed to attend public schools for clarity.

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