Measles? That is so 1890s

“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

It was recently announced that a child with an active case of measles flew from Amsterdam to Portland, exposing an unknown number of people to the disease.  Measles, a highly contagious disease causing a high fever, cough, runny nose, and rash covering the entire body, isn’t something we hear about frequently. (Though it is known for killing many a traveler in the computer game “Oregon Trail,” proving that the dream of the 1890’s, where people needlessly die from entirely preventable diseases, is alive in Portland.)  And for good reason. There are less than 1000 cases per year in the United States, making it by any measure a rare disease.  In recent years, however, the number of cases has been rising.

What is causing the resurgence of this disease?  Put simply, rejection of the last few hundred years of scientific progress (i.e. forgoing vaccines).  The arguments against vaccines are largely misguided and fueled by suspicions of a profit-driven healthcare system and conflicts of interest rather than grounded in science (i.e. (usually) reality).  Like most all debates in the United States, the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination crowd is largely individualist and ignores negative externalities of the decision to refrain from using vaccines.  “I choose what goes into my child’s body.”  Implicit in this statement is, “I have the right to put my child’s classmates, friends, and neighbors at higher risk for being exposed to communicable diseases.  Ron Paul 2012.”

Whether we like it or not, we are interdependent and our decisions have impacts on those around us.  For the most part, public health policy recognizes this, with public schools (kind of) requiring children to be immunized.  Vaccine “mandates” like this are only being strengthened, where recently in Washington state legislation was passed making it more difficult to opt out of immunizations.  Perhaps in addition to schools, it is time we require people show their immunization record to the TSA before boarding a flight?  I certainly don’t want to be exposed to measles or whooping cough when I travel.  I imagine parents who have immunocompromised children or children who have allergies that require they go unvaccinated feel the same way.  Given that the TSA requires one show their ID, naked body, shoes, belt, liquids, metal objects, etc, all while subjecting yourself to unnecessary radiation, handing over your immunization record doesn’t seem that extreme.  If one is really opposed, there are always covered wagons.