There seem to be two main categories of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for common childhood diseases like measles. One group lives in rural areas of hard red states, and sees vaccinating their children as an infringement on their freedom. The other group lives in places like Seattle, are affluent “back to nature” sorts, and have bought into all the scare literature about ill effects of vaccinations.

Scientists tell us that when vaccination rates fall below 90-95%, we lose the “herd immunity” that keeps many of these highly contagious diseases at bay. I have young grandchildren, and the idea that they are protected in school by the fact that most kids around them also are vaccinated matters to me.

To see the anti-vax argument play out, you need only to travel to countries like Panama where vaccines are not widely administered because of shortages of the vaccine itself, shortages of providers to administer a vaccine, or cost. A couple of years ago, when my Boston family came with me to Panama for a visit, the country was in the midst of a swine flu epidemic. People were dying, adults and children, most often from the severe respiratory complications that can accompany swine flu. Hospitals were filled to capacity, and respirators in too-short supply to keep suffering people alive until their bodies recovered. Even when a global health organization donated 1M flu vaccines, the health system lacked enough providers to administer the shots.

I recently mentioned Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Natural Causes, where she argues that we over-treat afflictions of the elderly, and inflate promises about what treatment can do. I agree with that. But being discerning about what medical treatments to accept is a far cry from refusing to vaccinate small children against common and highly contagious diseases that can create severe neurological complications and even kill.

I don’t buy the argument that personal freedom requires the right to put your children and the children around them at risk. I think the “back to nature” yuppies who willfully expose their children to measles because “all kids get measles” are nuts.

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