Edelman: Not all superstitions are benign, just ask those exposed to measles

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so,” and much of that is what we know as superstition.

It’s easy to recognize when a superstition is operating in someone else’s mind, much less so when it’s our thinking that’s suspect. We all know that it’s supposed to be bad luck for a black cat to cross your path. Should you be strolling the streets with someone stuck with that one, and you chance to encounter a black cat, your superstitious sidekick will swerve to avoid that unlucky critter. You might say, “you know, that’s just a superstition.” And you would likely hear, “no, no, it really is bad luck!” A superstition is an “is” that just ain’t so.


Avoiding a black cat or believing that four-leaf clovers bring good luck are harmless enough in themselves. But not all superstitions are benign. Just ask the several hundred students and staff from a couple of Southern California universities, quarantined last month because they were exposed to measles. Ask the more than 700 people in 22 states who broke out with this highly contagious, dangerous illness so far this year. Marylanders have not been exempt from the risks of a measles breakout. The Maryland Department of Health announced that just three weeks ago, people in Pikesville, not even a 20 minute ride to Carroll County may have been exposed to the disease. Here, as in the rest of the country, the current measles breakouts have mostly originated in ultra-orthodox Jewish enclaves, where vaccinations run counter to their religious beliefs.

A 22-year effort to eliminate measles in the United States achieved its goal in 2000, when our country had a continuous 12-month period with zero reported cases; locally, the state reported 5 cases between 2017-2019. Getting to that result took a long-term, highly effective vaccination program and improved techniques to control the disease when outbreaks occurred.

The MMR (Measles, Bumps, Rubella) vaccines in use today are very safe. The Centers for Disease Control reports that serious side effects, such as high fevers following vaccination are very uncommon, affecting about 1 child in 3,000–4,000, a much lower rate of serious or lethal complications from measles: one in 10 cases result in hearing loss, one in 20 will develop pneumonia, and one in a thousand will die from it.

Every parent of school-age children knows that their kids need proof of vaccinations for a number of diseases, among them chicken pox, pneumonia, whooping cough, and polio (I still remember those sugar cubes!) — no vaccinations, no public school. It’s also a pretty good idea for unvaccinated seniors to receive shots for pneumonia and shingles, and for all of us to get flu shots when the season comes.

Compulsory vaccination for school children has a long history, dating back to the early 1900s, when smallpox was a serious public health hazard; coupled with compulsory education requirements, inoculation rates increased, as did resistance to these programs. Back then, the driver for resisting vaccination was objection to government intrusion into what resisters believed was their right to do as they wished with their kids.

Today, medical reasons, such as allergies to components of vaccines or compromised immune systems clearly exempt a person from being immunized. Some people cite religious beliefs for not receiving vaccinations, and many states have enacted laws granting religious exemptions while still refusing to allow unvaccinated youngsters to attend public schools. Some people are just superstitious, believing that vaccines cause autism, or that infants cannot handle multiple injections, or that “natural immunity” from getting measles works better, or that herd immunity protects them. The facts don’t support any of these superstitions. And there are still people who refuse to vaccinate their children for no other reason than that the law requires it.

If you don’t brush your teeth, you’re at greater risk of losing them. If you don’t get vaccinated against dangerous diseases, you’re at greater risk of losing your life. If you haven’t been vaccinated, what are you waiting for?