Two Maryland parents are being investigated by state authorities because they let their 10- and 6-year-old children do what many consider a healthy activity: walk home alone from a park less than a mile away. Plenty of nanny-staters were quick to pounce on such parents who believe in what's popularly called "free-range" parenting (a group of us discussed it on HuffPost Live), but they seem reluctant to address the far more dangerous trend of parents refusing to provide their children life-saving vaccinations.
Consider the recent outbreak of measles in the United States. Traced to an unvaccinated and infected woman who made a December 2014 visit to Disneyland in California, this woman didn't just infect the people she stood next to as she waited in line for the Space Mountain and the Matterhorn Bobsled rides, she traveled to and from the park via airplane, where she infected people headed to other states. As multiple media outlets have reported, 70 people have since been diagnosed with measles in California, Utah, Colorado and Washington State. And just this week it was revealed that five employees of Disneyland are being treated for measles. It makes one wonder; with how many children did those employees came in contact?
The Los Angeles Times reports that health officials are extremely concerned, saying this outbreak "is the worst in California in 15 years, in part because it occurred not in a small, insular community but at a crossroads of the world." And they are right to worry. Measles is extremely contagious. According to the World Health Organization, the disease is spread by the quite common act of sneezing, coughing or coming into direct or close personal contact an infected person. Also, the virus remains active and contagious in the air or on infected surfaces for up to two hours. Now, take a moment to think of those cramped, kid-filled lines at Disneyland. Think of the handrails, the safety straps and bars on the rides, the shared seats.
Perhaps the scariest part of contracting measles is that once you've got it, there's not much doctors can do but provide palliative care, as there really is no medication that kills the virus. Rather, one simply has to let it run its course and hope for the best. That is why preventing the disease is so critical. The CDC reports that in areas where the measles vaccine isn't available, 20 million people still become infected resulting in 122,000 deaths per year. And yet, here in the United States, where the vaccine has been available for decades, parents are still declining this important preventative medicine. Why?
Much of the unfounded fears of vaccinations can be tracked back to the late 1990s, when now-disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield released a fraudulent study declaring a causal relationship between certain vaccines and Autism Spectrum Disorder. The respected medical journal The Lancet, which originally published the study, later retracted the study (a rare move) and Dr. Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine. The British General Medical Council, the body that revoked Wakefield's license, found Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in his research and in conducting his study, had displayed "callous disregard for the distress and pain the children might suffer."
Yet, Dr. Wakefield's discredited work lingers to this day and continues to mislead parents. Today, choosing to forgo vaccinations is no longer an odd decision by fringe, hippy parents. It has become mainstream. This makes us all — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — vulnerable to the disease for many reasons, among the most obvious that vaccinations are not 100 percent effective. In some, though rare, cases, a vaccination simply doesn't "take" leaving the person who received the vaccination still vulnerable. Newborns don't receive many of their vaccinations for months after birth. A small number of people are unable to receive vaccinations because of allergies to components of the medicine. For these reason, and others, all of us have a responsibility — indeed, a civic duty and moral obligation — to vaccinate.
Our culture should speak openly about what's happening here and the consequences of those decisions. It's absurd that senseless fear of a vaccination or certain chemicals used in the vaccination should lead to the unnecessary death or serious illness of a child.
We live in strange times. Many moms and dads will freak out about minuscule amounts of chemical preservatives in strawberry jam (added to keep the jam free of really dangerous pathogens, like listeria), or will read food labels until their eyes cross to avoid perfectly safe GMOs, artificial coloring, added sugars and a variety of other things they've "heard" or "read on the Internet" are harmful. Some parents, supported by state agencies, disapprove of other parents' decision to let kids walk home from a park. Yet many of these same parents will think nothing of skipping life-saving vaccinations.
Some of these parents believe in "natural" remedies and medical treatments, but parents need to understand that death is also natural and common — particularly when parents refuse to treat their children with man-made medicine.
Julie Gunlock writes for the Independent Women's Forum and is the author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything, and How to Fight Back