I was ten when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth fifty-five years ago. We were all mad for science then, and if you’d asked any of the kids I grew up with what we thought life would be like in 2017, we would have been sure we’d have colonies on Mars.
What nobody would have imagined is that state and national public health authorities would instead be forced to launch an “I Vaccinate” PR campaign, as they did yesterday to try to persuade parents to vaccinate their children. I knew that some parents are opposed to vaccination for religious reasons. I am also aware that others believe that vaccination can cause autism, though medical studies seem to have thoroughly debunked those claims.
But we also have many irresponsible people. Turns out that Michigan's child immunization rate is one of the worst in the nation. Monday, when the state officially launched its “I Vaccinate” campaign, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services revealed that only 54 percent of Michigan children under the age of three are current on all their vaccinations.
Barely a quarter of teenagers are.
This is not only irresponsible, but a health hazard. We have a beautiful and very bright four and a half year old in our family, and there is no way her parents should have to worry about her being exposed to whooping cough, now usually known as pertussis, or chicken pox, measles, mumps, or rubella. She won’t need to be vaccinated, as I was, against smallpox.
That disease, which killed and scarred millions throughout history, has now effectively been eradicated. But she will need protection against polio. One of my earliest childhood memories is that of my parents being thrilled at the introduction of polio vaccine.
Older kids told me about having to stay inside in the summers when there were outbreaks, and there was one young man in our neighborhood in what we called an iron lung.
Yes, there are very rare cases in which children and adults have actually gotten the disease they sought to avoid from a vaccination, or other adverse reactions. It is also possible to fall off your sofa and break your neck, or to drive around drunk and survive.
But the opposite is a zillion times more likely. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates vaccinating children will prevent nearly three-quarters of a million deaths over 20 years and stop more than 20 million other kids from landing in the hospital.
Freedom, including freedom of religion, doesn’t include the right to create a public health hazard. Last month, Linda Parker, a federal judge in Detroit, reaffirmed that in ruling against a plaintiff who claimed the state’s attempt to persuade her to vaccinate her children violated her constitutional rights. She was in fact allowed to not vaccinate her children on religious grounds, but the judge noted that based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings, “Michigan could constitutionally mandate that all children receive the required vaccinations before attending public school.”
Sadly, we don’t do that. But we should see that as many children are vaccinated as possible.
There is no excuse for any child dying because of irresponsibility or misinformation. And I’m proud of the state for trying to spread the word.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.