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Commentary: Measles In The Magic Kingdom

Madhusudan Katti

Amid growing fears of epidemics from new and emerging infectious diseases, the US is also seeing old diseases like measles and whooping cough make a comeback. In this segment of FM89's commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State biology professor Madhusudan Katti discusses the difficult moral choices facing parents worried about their children, and how science and public policy can help them.

“Have you traveled to West Africa in the past three months?” If you’ve seen your doctor in recent months, you probably have been asked this question.

“No.” I say, adding, “Nor have I traveled to or been in contact with anyone who visited Disneyland!” A raised eyebrow, and the nurse laughs, “Yeah, we should be asking that too!”

It is funny, the things we choose to fear in this world. A terrifying disease outbreak in a small part of Africa triggers a global panic, although it only spreads through direct contact with a victim’s bodily fluids. A couple of Ebola cases appear in the US, and the CDC kicks into high gear to successfully nip it before you can say epidemic. Ebolanoia dies down, leaving behind just the routine questions at the doctor’s office.

Meanwhile, another dangerous epidemic appears over Christmas break, rapidly infecting hundreds of people in California and elsewhere. This parasite spreads through the air, and can linger in elevators for hours. Children are particularly vulnerable, especially if parents have chosen not to protect them against this disease through a simple vaccine. While Ebola looms large in our fears, many have forgotten how deadly Measles can be. Yet, the doctor’s office never asks if we’ve been to Disneyland, epicenter of this measles outbreak.

We humans are very poor at judging the risks inherent in our lives. Our response to Ebola and Measles are both out of proportion to the real risks posed by the two parasites. Measles, driven out of the US over a decade ago, has now made a comeback along with whooping cough and other childhood diseases, because many parents choose to forgo vaccinations.

Parents face many difficult choices, weighing variable risks to protect precious progeny from real and imagined dangers in this world. Vaccines, after decades of successfully eradicating many agents of death, have somehow become part of the fear matrix for even otherwise educated parents.

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that vaccines are safe and vital to public health. Yet a few vocal skeptics use dubious studies to stoke our fears. Science and public policy can help parents navigate the moral dilemma of weighing the risks and benefits of vaccination not just for their own children, but also for those more vulnerable among us.

Public policy faces its own moral dilemma: in a free society, how do we combat the voices spreading misinformation and bad science? How do we ensure that parents choose vaccinations that protect their children and us from our most ancient scourges?

Perhaps one day there will be a vaccine to help us overcome the fear centers in our brains so we can make the best-informed safe choices for our children and for public health. 

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.