Measles Outbreak Occurs Amidst Renewed Interest in Vaccination Politics

(First published in 2017; new posts coming soon)

The largest outbreak of Measles in Minnesota since 1990 comes at a time where the anti-vaccine movement has gained strength.  Donald Trump has met with a prominent advocate concerned about vaccine risks and has allegedly proposed a “vaccine safety commission.In the state of Texas, activists have succeeded in electing many politicians willing to defend their alleged right to refuse to vaccinate their children.

The current outbreak is impacting Minnesota’s Somali immigrant community where the belief that Autism can be caused by the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR) led many to refuse to immunize their children.  One of the originators of this hypothesis, Andrew Wakefield, as well as other activists, had met with parents of the community prior to the outbreak.  Wakefield is one of several authors of a study published in 1998 that originated the fear that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism.  Wakefield’s study has since been withdrawn.  The study is widely regarded as a fraud for many reasons including an ethical conflict of interest resulting from Wakefield’s involvement in a lawsuit that stood to benefit from his publication.  Wakefield has stated that he feels he was “framed” by the pharmaceutical industry in a response to the many charges against him.  There are numerous studies thoroughly debunking Wakefield’s ideas.  He claims no responsibility for the current outbreak.

The vaccination issue draws strong opinions from all involved.  Those that believe parents have the right to refuse the MMR vaccine assert that parents, not the state, should have the final say on medical decisions impacting their children.  Defenders of vaccines believe that allowing parents to opt out of immunizations hurts their children as well as the general community.  The issue became personal for Jim Jacks, a pediatrician, when his daughter was potentially exposed to measles by an unvaccinated child.  In a scathing letter, he explains that some children, like his daughter, cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and thus “cannot be protected … except by vaccinating people around them.”

It is possible that the current outbreak will help fuel desires for stricter vaccination laws, such as the current law in California.  California requires vaccinations for school attendance.  This law was challenged in Witlow v. California where the free exercise clause, equal protection clause, and due process clause were used to argue that it was unconstitutional to eliminate a personal belief exemption to the vaccine.  The court ruled that the state’s interest in fighting the spread of disease outweighed any claim of protection that those clauses could provide.  The LA Times has recently reported that vaccination rates in California have improved due to the new law.