In a nation that is struggling through a protracted debate about access to health care, citizens in Idaho and Washington are remarkably cavalier about a proven and readily available disease-prevention practice that has been available for decades.
Both states continue to lag when it comes to getting youngsters vaccinated against childhood diseases. As a consequence, Kootenai County is now dealing with an outbreak of pertussis, or whooping cough. With more than 40 children already afflicted, the outbreak is worse than any in recent years by a factor of five, health officials say.
Granted, this is the great Pacific Northwest, where states were formed more than a century ago in an era of independence and populism. It’s part of our heritage to question authority – and prevailing wisdom. That’s no excuse for gambling with children’s health, however.
In some ways, we have reason to celebrate. About 67 percent of Kootenai County children and about 73 percent of Spokane County children have had the recommended vaccinations. That’s below the national performance but a sharp improvement over previous years. As recently as 2003, Washington’s statewide percentage was barely over 56 percent, and it reached only 71 percent by 2006 against a national goal of 80 percent.
Although Washington and Idaho can’t be accused of being any more gullible than other states, their vaccination rates may in time benefit from the decision by Britain’s General Medical Council to formally ban Dr. Andrew Wakefield from practicing medicine. It is Wakefield’s discredited research that claimed a link between vaccination and autism. His dubious methods were among the ethical lapses behind the council’s action.
It is to be hoped that publicity about this refutation of his work will cause some reluctant parents to re-evaluate their fears.
It’s unrealistic, however, to think that the majority of parents who were scared away from getting their children vaccinated, thanks to Wakefield’s irresponsible allegations, will do an abrupt about-face now.
For one thing, many factors other than Wakefield’s influence contribute to parental decisions – religious views, financial considerations, reluctance to put their kids through the ordeal of a shot.
Meanwhile, the censure delivered by the General Medical Council won’t mark the end of Wakefield’s legacy. It will endure on the Internet, where conspiracy theories thrive.
What is needed is for Idaho and Washington to redouble their efforts – by public health agencies and by legislative bodies – to improve vaccination rates for their children. One specific place to look, for Washington state policymakers, is the astonishingly lenient policy that permits parents to withhold vaccinations from schoolchildren without providing any reason. All it takes is a signature.
Some blame for the low vaccination rates in this region is cultural, no doubt, but these states should not be trailing so many others in as important a category as this. A modern society can’t permit adults’ ideologies to endanger children’s health.