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Measles outbreaks continue to lacerate communities from coast to coast, and there’s absolutely no reason for it. The latest involve dozens of new cases in New York and in Clark County, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland.
These shouldn’t be happening. The highly contagious disease — which can lead to pneumonia and, in uncommon cases, to encephalitis or even death — was all but eradicated in 2000.
But many parents, embracing scientifically debunked fears about vaccination health risks, have declined the inoculation of their children with the doses for measles, mumps and rubella.
It surely doesn’t help when public figures who should know better spread uninformed views. Darla Shine, wife of White House Communications Director Bill Shine, tweeted last week that childhood diseases “keep you healthy & fight cancer” and that “sadly,” her children had received the MMR.
Actually, her kids are safer because they’ve had the vaccine.
The core issue is that too many states make it too easy for parents to avoid having their children immunized. While all 50 require vaccinations, 17 states allow parents to opt out for personal reasons.
Even if their offspring get and survive the illness, they selfishly place at serious risk other children who can’t be vaccinated because of legitimate medical concerns such as a compromised immune system. Those children are protected only when virtually everyone else in the community is immunized, breaking the chain of infection.
Even worse, in 2016 scientists found that a deadly measles neurological complication, which lies dormant in children for years, is more common than previously thought, arising in 1 out of 609 cases where unvaccinated babies contract the disease.
Recent outbreaks underscore the risks of allowing nonmedical exemptions.
Forty-seven states let parents opt out for religious reasons. Among them is New York, where there have been more than 70 cases of measles in New York City since October, including cases among unvaccinated children within an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. In Rockland County, there have been 135 cases since September.
The state of Washington allows both religious and personal exemptions. The result is that only 78 percent of children ages 6 to 18 in Clark County have received the necessary two doses of MMR. Almost all of the 62 confirmed cases of measles in that county this year involved no prior immunization.
Three states — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — allow vaccination exemptions strictly for medical reasons. Not coincidentally, their two-dose MMR rates for kindergartners are 96.9 percent, 99.4 percent and 98.4 percent, respectively.
The outbreak in Washington has prompted legislators to consider a measure sponsored by a Clark County Republican state representative that would deny MMR exemptions based on personal beliefs.
For all the sense this makes, hardcore opposition remains fierce. Even as children fell ill, hundreds of naysayers arrived at the Washington statehouse to voice opposition. When California passed an even stricter law in 2015, the sponsor — state Sen. Richard Pan — received death threats.
Despite the blowback, government requirements are the right things to do, along with public education campaigns. Exemptions to state-mandated vaccinations should be granted only for narrowly prescribed medical or religious reasons. The health of children is too important to put at risk.