Commentary: Vaccine law passed, but education work remains

The state has eliminated personal exemptions; now to cure gross misconceptions about the MMR shot.

Even as Washington’s new vaccine law went into effect, the need persists for education regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

The Legislature this year passed a law eliminating philosophical or personal beliefs as an exemption to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Exemptions remain for religious beliefs or medical reasons.

The impetus for the law was an outbreak of measles in the state, which was centered in Clark County. Nearly 100 cases of measles have been confirmed in Washington this year, and the outbreak is considered to be ongoing. The Clark County outbreak was declared over in April, following 71 confirmed cases that included 52 among children 10 and younger.

Those are disturbing for a disease that was considered eliminated in the United States nearly 20 years ago. Years of misinformation regarding vaccines have led to an anti-vaccine movement that has reduced vaccination numbers and has opened the door for a revival of the disease. More than 1,100 cases of measles have been confirmed across the country this year in at least 30 states.

Although Washington has eliminated the philosophical exemption for the MMR vaccine, that does not mean the vaccine police are going to be knocking on doors and forcing children to receive shots. It simply means that children must be vaccinated to attend public or private schools and day care centers; barring a religious or medical exemption.

It also does not mean that fear of vaccines will be eliminated. The anti-vax movement can be traced to fraudulent research by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published a fabricated study linking the MMR vaccine to autism in children. Wakefield has since been stripped of his medical license, and his study has been thoroughly discredited.

That, however, has not stopped the tidal wave of misinformation; or the need for parents to seek reliable information. Parents understandably want to protect their children, and delineating truth from fear-mongering can be difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, the Clark County Public Health Department and numerous other outlets provide extensive information about vaccines; we believe they are more reliable than that Facebook post shared by your aunt in Minnesota.

Most important, numerous peer-reviewed studies have looked into a possible link between vaccines and autism, with none of them confirming Wakefield’s “research.” In providing links to those studies, the CDC writes, “Because signs of autism may appear around the same time children receive the MMR vaccine, some parents may worry that the vaccine causes autism. Vaccine safety experts … agree that MMR vaccine is not responsible for recent increases in the number of children with autism.”

Washington lawmakers this year wisely recognized the dangers of allowing widespread exemptions. Children younger than 12 months do not receive the MMR vaccine, immunizations are ineffective for some people, and others have conditions that prevent them from receiving the shot. For those people, a measles outbreak is particularly dangerous; for measles, “herd immunity” requires about 95 percent of the population to be vaccinated in order to prevent an outbreak.

All of those facts, however, can get lost in a haystack of misinformation. While Washington has removed philosophical exemptions for the MMR vaccine, the battle for the truth surrounding immunizations must continue.

The above editorial appeared in The Columbian on July 30.

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