Worry about measles fades over the summer. Kids scatter to parks and beaches instead of congregating in classrooms and cafeterias, where a cough or sneeze can leave the virus hanging in the air for up to two hours. By late August, with school back in session or nearly so, the scarring pox pops back into view.
Amid misinformation repeated by anti-vaxxers and a jump in the tally of families receiving exemptions from the vaccines required of school-age children, Illinois is trying a good-cop approach to bolstering immunity. It has increased access to vaccines and invested in public awareness. The Illinois Department of Public Health is promoting the hashtag #VaxToSchool to urge parents to place vaccinations on the list of essential school preparations, a counterpoint to aggressive use of social media by anti-vaxxers.
If those efforts work, perhaps Illinois can avoid the next escalation: removing the option to receive a religious exemption, as a handful of states have already done.
So far, the gentle approach hasn’t been effective. Illinois tightened the procedure for religious exemptions in 2015. What happened? Many more Illinois students — more than 19,000 in 2018, up from 13,000 in 2013 — have since been denied the protection of vaccines by parents claiming faith-based reasons.
The measles vaccine is safe and effective, yet the spike in the disease in the United States has been dramatic 19 years after it was declared eliminated. By early August, nearly 1,200 cases of measles had been confirmed in 30 states, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the most cases since 1992 and up from just 63 cases in 2010. Just last week, a 43-year-old Israeli flight attendant died after contracting measles and developing the complication encephalitis, or swelling of the brain.
Illinois child care facilities and schools require a variety of immunizations, including diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. Medical exemptions are allowed for children who have compromised immune systems or other health issues. Illinois also allows nonmedical exemptions, almost always based on religious grounds. Illinois does not, at least, allow a “philosophical” exemption, which some states still do.
Illinois has strong “herd immunity,” which holds widespread outbreaks in check. But concern is rising over the number of schools that fall under the benchmark 95% vaccination rate.
Tolerance of vaccine avoidance should end well before children reach the school door, where that choice puts others in danger. Let the semester begin with an easy ethics and civics lesson: Maintaining public health is mandatory.