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Vaccines: No immunity from ignorance

Another day, another irresponsible comment about measles vaccinations. This time the outbreak of stupidity infected the field of Republicans running for president with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suggesting there should be "some measure of choice" regarding vaccination and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul speaking out against government requirements and alluding to "normal" children having "profound mental disorders" after taking vaccines.

Not to be left out, another potential candidate, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, seemed to try to downplay the significance of a measles vaccination in an interview, saying that "I do think parents have to make those choices. I mean, I got measles as a kid. We used to all get measles. … I got chicken pox, I got measles, I got mumps."

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So let's set the record straight. The recent measles outbreaks in California, Ohio and elsewhere are alarming not only because there's a safe vaccination available against the disease but because it remains a serious and potentially deadly health threat. While the vast majority of people who contract measles can get over it like Ms. Fiorina, there are some people who are at high risk of complications, including those with weakened immune systems.

An outbreak of measles, which is highly contagious, is only possible because some parents are irresponsibly electing not to have their children vaccinated. Some may have wrongly thought the vaccine can cause autism. Such misconceptions ought not to be reinforced by people running for the nation's highest elected office. Instead, these men and women should to be encouraging public health efforts to get the vaccine to as many children as possible.

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Not everyone is so anti-government that they believe endangering the health of others is a parent's God-given right. Baltimore's Ben Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon but also a staunch critic of government mandates (and most particularly the Affordable Care Act), released a statement saying people should not be allowed to refuse safe immunizations. The nation, he writes, "should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious, or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them."

Parents like to think they have sole authority over matters pertaining to their children, but that's not really true. In the U.S., we don't permit reckless, endangering behavior. Just as it is illegal to drive faster than the speed limit, it is also against the law to abuse or neglect your children — or your neighbor's children. It is one thing to fail to get proper medical care for your kids, it is quite another to actively fight against the broader public good.

Outbreaks like the measles are just waiting to happen under the right conditions if enough people fail to get necessary immunizations. And the consequences can be devastating. In a touching 1988 letter that's been widely shared on the Internet this week, children's author Roald Dahl, the man who wrote such classics as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach," wrote of the death of his 7-year-old daughter Olivia to measles encephalitis in the early 1960s before the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was available.

"There was nothing the doctors could do to save her," he recalled.

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Even today, there is no medicine that kills the measles virus. Only symptoms can be treated; it's up to a body's immune system to battle against the cause. That why our best protection against measles remains the MMR vaccine — but the effectiveness of that approach is compromised when people refuse its protection.

This ought not be a partisan issue, but a matter of science. Disbelieving in the benefits of vaccines has sometimes infected both sides of the political spectrum, but for some reason, it's the conservative candidates for president who can't seem to get over it — just as they refuse to acknowledge man-made climate change even as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hits record levels, glaciers melt and sea levels rise.

We have the means to wipe out measles, and it's shameful that some ill-informed people are actively working against that goal. Still, what's really outrageous is when this kind of anti-social behavior is encouraged or even countenanced by people who should know better but see political advantage in playing to anti-government fears.

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