As public health professionals and immunization advocates, we understand that our work is largely invisible. If we’re doing our job right, most people won’t even know because, quite literally, nothing happens. But that “nothing” takes an awful lot of work, and it requires the support of both individuals and entire communities.
When that support is lost due to misinformation, vaccination rates fall and preventable diseases make a comeback.
For years, we’ve been watching the increase in the number of children not fully immunized and have braced ourselves for a resurgence of dangerous diseases. Sadly, that time has come. Measles is back, and it has hit the “happiest place on earth.”
The Disneyland measles outbreak has so far been linked to 92 percent of the 102 measles cases reported this year in 14 states. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence. There have been an additional 23 outbreaks over the past year, with 644 cases reported in 27 states, the most cases since measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000.
Texas is no exception. Late last month, a case was found in Tarrant County in a person with a history of international travel. So far, no other cases have been reported in the state, but health officials are on high alert due to the disease’s highly infectious nature. According to the Centers for Disease Control, measles is so contagious that 90 percent of the people who are exposed to someone with the disease and are not immune will become infected.
Though public health professionals have been predicting this crisis for a while, we can quickly stem the tide of re-emerging vaccine-preventable diseases. But we can’t do it alone. It is entirely dependent on the actions of each individual working together on behalf of the community. We can each take several steps to protect ourselves, our children and our community from needless suffering.
1. You have a right to know your school’s immunization exemption rate. Immunization exemptions rates in Texas schools are rising at an alarming rate. You may not even know your child’s school is at risk for an outbreak. Children who are too young to be vaccinated or who cannot be vaccinated because of medical reasons are especially at risk. Just as we want to know other important facts about our children’s schools, like test scores and school ratings, immunization exemption information will give parents one more key piece of information about their child’s health and safety at school. A bill will soon be filed in the Texas Legislature to make de-identified immunization exemption rate information for every school in Texas available to parents. Let your legislator know how important it is to you that you have access to this critical information about your child’s school.
2. Share your views — your peers will listen. So what do you do if you find out that your child’s school has a high immunization exemption rate? Start a conversation with parents at the school. A diplomatic and respectful conversation might sway someone who’s sitting on the fence. With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and unlimited access to both fact and fiction on the internet, it can be hard for parents to discern valid information from misinformation. Spread the truth about vaccines, bust the myths and take a stand. Ask your peers to do their homework, and point them to reliable sources for immunization information. You might be surprised how the facts can persuade reasonable people to change their minds. Talk to your friends and family members. They’ll listen.
3. Practice what you preach: Immunize on time, every time. Are you up to date on all your adult vaccines? Did you get the flu shot this year? Are your parents, children and spouse up to date? What about your co-workers and their families? Immunizing is an individual act that protects a whole community. Set the example. Make immunizations a priority, and make sure that the people around you do, too.
We can stop diseases like the measles if we band together. Let’s work together to make sure “nothing” happens.