As we debate mandatory vaccinations for kids, school health safety in Colorado is declining. Meanwhile, a recent study questions the effectiveness of public education to encourage responsible behavior by parents. We must do more.
An outbreak of pertussis, a.k.a. whooping cough, is undermining school safety. Recently in Colorado, monthly reported cases are four times typical averages.
While pertussis outbreaks can subside for years and then return like locusts, the controllable mitigating factor is vaccination. Here again the numbers for Colorado are grim. A stunning 4.3 percent of Colorado kindergartners enter school without complete vaccinations. The reason is an archaic system that allows a parent to exempt a child from immunization based on medical reasons or religious or personal beliefs. In Colorado, 93 percent of exemptions are attributed to personal beliefs.
I respect personal beliefs, but not when they’re dangerous, such as when my children must share classroom space with disease carriers whose parents reject scientific fact. Likewise, I don’t support personal beliefs that favor bringing weapons into the school or selling drugs on the playground. And if someone believes it’s OK to drive drunk, I don’t support that either. In other words, the protection of personal beliefs isn’t some non-negotiable core American value as the anti-vaxxers — those opposing vaccination — contend.
Maybe we can open their minds. If we simply show parents what these preventable diseases could do to their child, they might see the light. With pertussis, the coughing is so uncontrollably manic that the lungs drain of air. Then the body switches into emergency defense mode to save itself, sucking oxygen desperately enough to produce that trademark whoop sound. It’s torture.
But according to a recent study published in Pediatrics, trying to convince with harsh truth not only fails to change minds, it makes vaccination opponents dig in their heels. No, it’s not logical, but then neither are the anti-vaxxers.
Some people accept an anecdote more readily than statistically significant research from those pesky scientists with their niggling facts. So maybe we can share this testimonial with the doubters: A close relative of mine grew up the daughter of an anti-vaxxer. As a result, she suffered through chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough and two forms of measles. Fortunately, she was spared tetanus and polio because Mom felt those vaccinations weren’t part of a government plot.
The real answer lies with tighter immunization rules. According to an October 2013 report by The Keystone Center, the incidence of pertussis in Colorado is 41 percent higher than in states with tighter rules.
Fortunately, a couple of lawmakers at the state capital agree and have taken action. House Bill 1288 would make it harder for parents to avoid their responsibility. Before claiming an exemption based on personal beliefs, a parent would either have to provide documentation from a physician or complete an online education course about vaccines. I like the direction but wish it were stronger.
I’ll never forget when the vaccinators visited our elementary school in the 1960s. At the head of a line of kids in the gymnasium, a man wielded a device that looked like a pistol from “Lost in Space.” When it was our turn, the man held the gadget against our upper arm and pffft! we were vaccinated, the entire student body. I like the sound of that.