LAST weekend, a teenager in King County whose parents intentionally avoided mandatory vaccinations was diagnosed with measles. Public-health officials in King County and in Portland, Ore., where the teen had recently attended a tennis tournament, scrambled to issue detailed itineraries of potential contamination.
Lucky for them, and for the rest of us, school hadn’t started. But imagine the anger of a parent of a particularly vulnerable child — an infant, or a child with a compromised immune system — learning his or her kid is now at risk because another parent was gambling with a preventable, highly transmittable illness.
In epidemiology, it’s known as the free-rider phenomenon. Non-immunization is a risk some parents apparently think they can afford only because most other parents wisely choose to immunize their kids.
As school begins in Seattle this week, it’s worth revisiting a disturbing fact: The Pacific Northwest is the nation’s hot spot for anti-vaccination free-riders.
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Washington ranks seventh, at 4.6 percent, in the percentage of kindergartners whose parents last year demanded exemptions from mandatory vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oregon (6.4 percent) has the nation’s worst rate, followed closely by Idaho (5.9 percent) and Alaska (5.6 percent).
Call it a frontier mentality, or counterculturalism, or whatever. It is based on unfounded fear, not science.
The anti-vaccination craze was fueled by a 1998 study in the British medical journal The Lancet, which suggested a link between the vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella (the M.M.R. immunization) and autism. The study was retracted, subsequent research has disproved the link and, in 2010, Britain’s General Medical Council barred the researcher, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, from practicing medicine.
If that’s not enough, a federal trial in 2009, in which three families with children who have autism sought compensation from a special vaccine-injury fund, ended with another debunking of the vaccine-autism link. A special master found the evidence was “overwhelmingly contrary” to such a link. But it lives on. With serious consequences.
There are fresh measles outbreaks in Wakefield’s native England, and at a Texas church that preached the debunked autism-vaccine link. In 2008, 18 of the 19 children in a measles outbreak in Grant County were unvaccinated.
Washington’s vaccination rate has risen since the 2011 state Legislature — apparently embarrassed by the state’s then-worst-in-the-nation ranking — tightened the wide-open exemption policy for mandatory vaccinations. Now, parents have informed consent — including a risk-benefit talk with their doctor — before exempting their child, except for religious reasons. Oregon, the current leader in non-vaccination, recently copied the law.
For parents considering sending non-vaccinated students to school, remember that free riding carries a heavy public cost.