Forget Trump – anti-vaxxers are the clear and present danger | Emma Brockes

It can be hard, reading the news at the moment, to settle on any one individual or interest group to dislike the most viscerally, and this week was particularly tough. Donald Trump’s “I didn’t commit treason, you committed treason” remarks to the FBI; the ongoing madness in Westminster and the proposal by the US education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to cut funding for the Special Olympics made it a bad week even by current standards. But then news emerged, on Wednesday, of a measles outbreak in Rockland County, New York. Public health officials said there were 153 confirmed cases.

This is an entirely preventable emergency that, in a crowded field, has thrown anti-vaxxers back to the top of the league table of those to be held in utter opprobrium. As most sane people know by now, measles was declared wiped out in the US in 2000 but has since come roaring back thanks to parents failing to immunise their children. It’s a pattern repeated across the western world. According to the World Health Organization, in 2018 measles cases tripled across Europe. In the US, they went up by 559%.

In New York, parents who sign up to the groundless panic around the MMR vaccine can, unbelievably, exploit a loophole in the system that grants exemption from vaccinations on religious grounds. When children enrol in school in the city, their parents are required to present their vaccination records, unless they go downtown to a special office where, by pretending to be devout, they can be excused from the requirement.

This is, of course, absurd, although no more so than the number of seemingly rational people who still dither on the fence over this issue. I know otherwise intelligent people who, while not going the whole hog and failing to vaccinate their children, have vacillated and put it off for a few years while “researching the science” online.

One is supposed to have sympathy for anyone worrying about their children. And telling people they are stupid doesn’t win arguments. On the other hand … jeez, this one is hard. While we fret about rising sea levels, the threat posed by Russia and the implications of having a lunatic in the White House, coming in from the blind side it’s going to be the anti-vaxxers who end up killing us all.

In the meantime, there they are, weaving conspiracy theories about what the Center for Disease Control won’t tell us. In Rockland County, at least, health officials seem to have lost all patience, declaring a state of emergency this week and taking the extraordinary measure of banning, from the stroke of midnight on Wednesday, anyone under the age of 18 who is not vaccinated against measles from public places until the outbreak is over.

For the rest of us, the only sanction is to turn failure to vaccinate into a much greater social taboo. Remember that guy from a few years ago who caused a public health panic in New York by returning from Guinea during the Ebola outbreak, then cheerfully rode the subway and went bowling? Everyone yelled at him online, although it was a freak event. The rise in measles is a trend. It might be the one context in which public shaming has a grain of justification.

Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist


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