According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children without vaccines is on the rise, and has been since at least 2001. The report finds that 1.3 percent of children born in 2015 were completely unvaccinated, compared to 0.9 percent of children born in 2011 and 0.3 percent of children born in 2001. How worried should we be?
Not that worried, at least not yet. Vaccinations protect not just the children who receive the shots, but everyone else as well. When enough of a given community gets vaccinated, diseases can’t spread because there aren’t enough unvaccinated people to catch the disease, creating what’s often called “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity is an important function of vaccinations. Some people cannot safely be vaccinated because of allergies or a weak immune system. These people have no choice but to rely on herd immunity. The herd immunity threshold depends on the disease, but hyper contagious diseases like measles require 90 percent to 95 percent vaccination levels for herd immunity to be effective.
As long as the number of children without vaccinations stays below 5 percent, you shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about a measles epidemic. Still, the trend of decreasing percentages of vaccinated children is concerning. Although herd immunity remains strong enough to protect against large-scale outbreak, cases of pertussis and measles are on the rise because of vaccine opt-outs.
People opt out of vaccinations for various reasons. Some, like President Donald Trump, fear vaccines cause autism (they don’t, as now-Health and Human Services Secretary Ben Carson tried to explain to Trump during a 2016 campaign debate). Others worry about various ingredients found in some vaccines, like aluminum (none of these are dangerous). Another group protests on religious grounds.
It’s tempting to say government shouldn’t force people to get vaccines, and that people deserve the freedom to make their own choices about vaccines. But those who forgo vaccinations aren’t just making choices for themselves; they’re making choices for the vulnerable populations that rely on herd immunity.
Moreover, adults aren’t even opting themselves out, they’re opting their children out, which needlessly subjects those children to dangerous diseases like measles and polio.
This country doesn’t allow conscientious objectors to, say, ignore speeding laws. The rights of others to exist in a safe environment supersede those of the objectors. When one person’s freedom interferes with another’s safety, governments can and should intervene. A public school, for example, has every right to require all students to receive the recommended vaccines before enrolling. Such mandatory vaccine policies can go a long way toward protecting the rest of the population from the rise in anti-vaccine attitudes currently driving down vaccination numbers.