In Colorado, for example, 87.4 percent of kindergarteners have received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine — one of the lowest rates in the nation and well below the 95 percent rate sought by both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Senate-passed bill. Connecticut has seen a 25 percent year-over-year spike in religious exemptions. Non-medical exemptions have also been growing in Maine, leaving the state with the sixth highest rate of such exemptions during the last school year. All told, the percentage of unvaccinated children has increased fourfold since 2001.
“We unfortunately talk to people on a daily basis who have lost their children to vaccine-preventable diseases,” says Erica DeWald, advocacy director for Vaccinate Your Family, a pro-vaccine advocacy group. “A whole other group of parents are terrified their kids are going to school with unvaccinated kids.”
With the new coronavirus spreading across the country, most of the public would welcome the protection of a new vaccine. It’s possible that dynamic could shift the debate around the broader vaccination question.
“We could have lots of problems before a vaccine is available,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who has written critically about vaccine exemptions. “That long, unhappy period could remind people about the value of vaccination.”
But DeWald notes there have been public health scares in the recent past that haven’t pulled off that trick, including anthrax and H1N1. DeWald and other vaccine supporters believe that the whole idea of inoculation has been a victim of its own success.
“When you hear celebrities like Jenny McCarthy say that, 'between the vaccine and measles, I’ll take measles every time,' it shows we’ve not only eliminated measles but the memory of measles,” [Dr. Paul] Offit says.
Polls indicate that the vast majority of Americans support vaccines. According to a Gallup poll released in January, 84 percent believe that vaccinating children is important. That number has dropped, however, from 91 percent at the start of the century.