The last person who had to live inside an iron lung due to polio recently died but it didn’t draw much attention even though it marked the symbolic end to a plague that haunted humanity for millennia.

The truth is that it’s hard for people to worry about a disease that none of us have ever seen. And that, in a nutshell, is the irony of vaccines.

When vaccines do a good job of boosting the body’s natural immune system, as they did with polio, they eliminate the underlying disease and soon we forget it ever existed. Then we stop worrying about it. Until we have to worry again.

Which is starting to happen with measles.

You and I think of measles as an annoying outbreak of childhood itchiness but it is a deadly and highly contagious disease which prior to 1963, when widespread vaccination began, killed 2 to 3 million people annually. It still kills more than 125,000 people every year, most of them under age 5 and not vaccinated, living in the developing world.

But now patients are starting to crop up in the developed world as the plague of anti-vaccine delusion keeps spreading. Dartmouth Health recently sent out a cautionary note last week urging parents to make sure their kids are up-to-date with the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine because of measles outbreaks in parts of Europe.

A note: If you were born before 1957 you might need a measles booster since protection from earlier vaccines might have faded. Measles can be very dangerous for those of us in our Golden Years, so check with your physician.

Although the U.S. hasn’t seen the disease spread aside from rare outbreaks contained within religious communities that shun vaccines, measles is much more contagious than COVID-19 or flu and can spread like wildfire in a place without enough medical protection.

New Hampshire isn’t exactly without medical protection but we’re not doing terribly well. The percentage of children entering kindergarten who are up-to-date on all their vaccines, including both doses of MMR, is at about 90% for public schools, having fallen about 2 percentage points in four years. That’s slightly below the national average.

Worse, the figure of fully protected kindergartners is a terrible 80% in private schools, where the figure has fallen a full 5 percentage points in three years. That is low enough that the vague concept of herd immunity is starting to fray.

Incidentally virtually all the New Hampshire children left vulnerable to measles are in that condition because their parents claim a religious exemption rather than a medical exemption, presumably because the medical one requires backup evidence.

Religious anti-vax sentiment puzzles me since the world’s major religions were all established long before vaccination was developed. I also can’t figure out why such theological purity never keeps people from using other modern health accomplishments like, say, prescription glasses or flush toilets, but that’s a topic for another day.

Unfortunately, New Hampshire isn’t alone in failing to completely embrace one of the great accomplishments of the human spirit. COVID supercharged the anti-vaccine community by entangling it in the no-mandates crowd and we haven’t undone the damage. At the rate we’re going, somebody is going to “liberate” smallpox samples from a lab and release them into the wild because a YouTube video claimed it was OK.

Fortunately, we’re all vaccinated against smallpox. At least, I sure hope so

Pin It on Pinterest