Last Wednesday at midnight, Rockland County, N.Y., did something no local government had ever done. It barred anyone under age 18 who has not received the measles vaccine from going to libraries, gyms, supermarkets — any public place where they could expose others to the virus. The state of emergency came as a desperate, final effort to stop the spread of the largest measles outbreak in America.
Other communities might soon be taking similar measures: The number of measles cases across the country this year is at its second highest since the disease was eradicated in 2000 — and we’re only in April.
Many Americans are shocked at the growth of the anti-vaccine movement. Alas, I’m not one of them. As a mother who has traveled in home-schooling circles since the birth of my first child in 2013, I have watched as hostility toward vaccines has blossomed.
The decision to home-school came easily for me and my husband. For the cost of my missed income — which was less than what we would have paid for private school for all of our children — we can tailor-make our children’s education. Our children have different educational needs, and thanks to our extremely small class size of three, they can be met much more easily.
Unfortunately, this go-against-the-grain attitude within the home-schooling community extends to vaccines. One of the reasons the home-schooling movement is growing exponentially is that it has attracted parents who are pulling their children out of schools that require vaccinations.
Because I want my children to have an active social life with other home-schooled kids, asking another parent whether they or their kids are up-to-date on their shots is something I’ve avoided. But my attempt to stay willfully ignorant has lately hit a snag: Like people who do cross-fit and eat vegan, mothers who don’t vaccinate have a way of telling you within an hour of meeting that they don’t “poison their kids with chemicals.” While socializing at home-school gatherings, parents increasingly swap recommendations about the elusive pediatrician who won’t require them to vaccinate.
I now have a solid idea of how many home-schooled kids I know who aren’t vaccinated. It’s as many as half.
Right now, my children are old enough to be fully vaccinated and so they largely are safe socializing. But as of this summer, God willing, the choice to hang with other home-schooling families will become much more complicated. We’re having our fourth child, and exposing her to unvaccinated people could risk her life.
When we moved several states away last fall, we had a much clearer idea about what we were looking for from a pediatrician than we did when we were expecting our first baby. After a dear friend and her young daughter were exposed to the measles in her pediatrician’s waiting room while she was pregnant, we had one nonnegotiable requirement from our doctor: He or she could not accept parents who refuse to vaccinate.
The first place a parent brings a sick child is usually the pediatrician’s office, and we did not want to run the risk of exposing a new baby to a virus that can remain airborne for hours. It turned out those conversations I overheard about “flexible” and “understanding” pediatricians in our new community came in handy; we crossed off their names from our list immediately.
But if vaccines are so important to my family, I’ve come to ask myself how intellectually honest it is for me to turn a blind eye and continue to allow my kids to socialize with families who are putting us all at risk.
That’s the problem with vaccine refusal: It is not an individual choice. It is a choice that endangers everyone, especially those too young or sick to be vaccinated.
Right now, the only solution to the anti-vaccine public health crisis on a legislative level is to eliminate nonmedical exemptions for children entering school, and it is a policy that should be instituted and tightened in every state, as it is in California. This is an important step that states need to take, but it is only part of the solution as more and more families opt out of the system.
Thankfully, government intervention isn’t the only tool we have to address this crisis. Pediatricians should refuse to treat patients who refuse to vaccinate, leaving parents who would expose a waiting room to the measles with a choice: Do I vaccinate to make sure my child can be also treated for normal childhood ailments like ear infections and strep throat? One should not come without the other, not when other patients are put at unnecessary risk.
Home-schooled kids don’t exist in a bubble, and they don’t stay exclusively at home during the learning process. Our children, for example, attend classes at nature centers, the local zoo, a children’s gym and more. In the case of these programs, especially ones organized by government entities like the county parks department, there should be a requirement to show proof of immunization to register. Departments of Health in many states, including New York, require proof of vaccination for summer camp; any organized program that children participate in should require the same.
Home-school families like mine may be at the front lines of this crisis, but the unvaccinated kids I know go to the same supermarkets, churches, synagogues and movie theaters your kids do. Rockland’s decision to “bar” unvaccinated children from public places may be an unenforceable edict, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using every possible means to pressure members of the herd to act responsibly.
Bethany Mandel, who home-schools her children, is a part-time editor at Ricochet.
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