Public Health, Freedom To Choose and the Outbreak of Measles in the US

Is vaccinating children a question of public health or parents’ choice? That debate, which appears as if it were imported from the 19th century, is taking place in the United States of the 21st century, where an outbreak of measles has infected 102 people in 14 states since the beginning of the year and threatens to get out of health officials’ control. The majority of the victims are children, subject to the decisions of their parents who have religious beliefs or personal convictions in regard to rejecting immunization.

In the last three days, two potential Republican presidential candidates spoke out in favor of parents’ freedom to choose in regard to an issue that can place their children’s lives at risk. These politicians are the same ones that reject the right to have abortions with the allegation that they are protecting the lives of embryos.

Since 2000, measles has been considered to be a disease that was eradicated in the United States, thanks to the MMR vaccine, which was put into use in 1963 to immunize children against measles, smallpox and rubella.* However, in recent years the number of non-immunization fans has increased, in a cultural stew ranging from rich natural-product enthusiasts from California to religious folk from the American backwoods.

The combination of disinformation and fundamentalism led to 644 cases of the disease in 2014, the largest number in 20 years. The situation could get worse in 2015, with 102 cases registered in just one month. Brazil, which has a smaller population than the U.S., had 204 cases last year.

Despite all of the scientific evidence demonstrating the benefits of the vaccination, the Republican senator Rand Paul defended families’ freedom to decide on immunizing their children. The most alarming part of the statement is not the fact that Paul is a doctor, but that he could be a presidential candidate for his party in 2016: “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children, who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” said Paul in statements that would contradict scientific evidence.

Chris Christie, another aspiring Republican presidential candidate, also made statements in favor of parents’ right to choose in the case of immunizing their children: “… Parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide,” said Christie. Governor of New Jersey, he was less tolerant of a nurse that volunteered to treat Ebola victims in Africa last year. As determined by Christie, Kaci Hickox was placed in quarantine against her will when she returned to the United States, despite not showing signs of the disease and taking tests that showed that the virus was not present in her body. It’s difficult to understand why the Republican governor believed that isolating the nurse was a question of public health but making parents vaccinate their children might not be.

Just as a reminder: From 1956 to 1960, there was an average of 540,000 cases of measles per year in the United States. Five hundred children died as victims of the disease each of those years.

The disinformation that nourishes rejecting immunizations in the world’s largest economy is based in part on a “scientific” article published in 1998 in the British magazine Lancet, according to which there might be a relation between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was based on just 12 cases and its author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license for ethics violations and inconsistencies in his research study. But 16 years later, his false conclusions continue to influence parents in the United States, willing to place the health of their children and others at risk in the name of unfounded beliefs.

*Editor’s note: The vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella, not smallpox.

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