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SB 442: Is less education the answer?

The Oregon Legislature has declared that a state of emergency exists due the current measles outbreak: one single case in the state of Oregon. To address this "emergency," State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, has introduced a bill to exclude all children from all schools unless they are vaccinated on the government schedule.

Our measles vaccination rate stands at 94.7 percent nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and among Oregon’s schoolchildren it is 93 percent. The estimated herd immunity level for a disease as contagious as measles is 93 percent. That means that Oregon has herd immunity, and measles can only spread very inefficiently among sparse individuals without immunity, and in pockets in local communities and schools, and cannot spread epidemically. That is the science.

Only 3,300 schoolchildren in Oregon have exemptions, in a state of 4 million, and many of those are in fact vaccinated, just not on the recommended schedule. This is not an emergency.

The worst-case scenario is that new cases could enter the state and infect some of those schools with higher percentages of unvaccinated or less-vaccinated kids, as we have in Ashland, where nearly 1,000 students have waivers for either not vaccinating or for vaccinating on a slower schedule, or not for everything. None of those pockets ie large enough to expect any mortality, just some illness. But that hasn’t happened, and isn’t likely to at this point. The only case in Oregon (an adult) has resolved itself already, and with herd immunity in place, these infections are self-limiting. The fear that this threatens vaccinated kids is silly: Vaccination produces immunity.

When measles cases appeared in the U.S. last March (remember last year’s panic?), the New York Times asked two British doctors what they thought about mandatory vaccinations. They explained that though they had more measles in Britain than we had here, there was little concern, because they had excellent vaccination rates of 93.2 percent, and that, in fact, they were almost as high as rates in the U.S.! They are pleased; we are panicked.

They also pointed out that forcing universal vaccination by compulsion is not up for discussion in the United Kingdom because it is incompatible with a free democracy, and that all forms of medical compulsion have been abolished by law in the U.K. It was sobering to see that pointed out by British doctors, juxtaposed with American practitioners calling for compulsory treatment.

Does fear so rule the 21st century American psyche that any perceived threat — even a single case of measles — has us calling for compulsive tactics to force 100 percent conformity? The media hype has scared people, including Senator Steiner Hayward and our Sen. Alan Bates, and the drama of the issue has spread on social media, whipping up a vitriolic reaction of fear and hostility. It is completely out of proportion to the facts. But it is hard to calm people in a panic; they find calls for reasonableness threatening, and have become increasingly angry and strident.

Let’s pull back from the current feverish rush to do something, and look at it from the British doctors’ perspective. We have a good public health situation here, and nothing to panic about, no drastic measures to take. It won’t be as dramatic as fear-mongering, hating and blaming, but it will be more sane and worthy of a civil democracy.

Every patient has the right to make their own health choices, and their choices for their minor children. There is space for a dissenting, critical minority to make their own choices to delay or avoid vaccination. The parents who need to think about this risk are those whose children are not vaccinated, within a pocket of others. It is their risk-benefit analysis to make, and their decision.

James di Properzio lives in Ashland.