The recent death of an Israeli flight attendant from measles should serve as a tragic reminder of something too many people in the U.S. and elsewhere have forgotten: This is a dangerous disease, and those driving its resurgence with anti-vaccination movements around the world are playing with fire.
After contracting measles — possibly during an international flight from New York to Israel in March — the woman, a 43-year-old mother of three, was hospitalized with encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can be brought on by measles. She slipped into a coma soon after, and died on Aug. 13.
There was a time when this death wouldn't have made international news, because measles was once far more common. Measles plagued humanity throughout most of its history, infecting people, especially children, on a regular basis, often fatally. The introduction of widespread measles vaccinations beginning in the 1960s changed that. In 2000, the disease was declared effectively eradicated in the United States.
Its resurgence now isn't because of some new measles strain or sudden failure of the vaccines to continue working. No, it's entirely the result of an ill-conceived, aggressively ignorant anti-vaccination movement based on a lie.
Much of the movement traces its roots to a 1997 paper — now thoroughly debunked — that claimed vaccines can cause autism. There has never been one legitimate medical study confirming this allegation but many that have disproven it. Yet, like an especially stubborn strain of disease, the myth survives, spread by people who dress up their irrational refusal to heed mainstream science as some kind of virtue.
There's no virtue in ignorance. And now, that stubborn ignorance is killing people.
It's still not fully clear where the flight attendant contracted the disease, but officials' best guess is that it was on the flight out of New York — where anti-vaccination sentiment among ultra-Orthodox Jews has spawned one of the numerous recent U.S. outbreaks.
Anti-vaccination mythology has also taken root among political conservatives who view mandatory vaccination as government overreach, as if government has no legitimate interest in preventing the spread of disease. Some back-to-nature enthusiasts are also endorsing the movement — perhaps forgetting that, left to nature, many of their children would needlessly die the way they routinely did before the advent of vaccines.
The effects are clear: Nearly 1,000 cases have been reported nationwide so far this year.
In most public policy debates, there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides, but not this one. Those who oppose universal vaccination against controllable diseases are, whether they acknowledge it or not, arguing for a society in which the stubborn, radically anti-factual ignorance of a few is allowed to endanger everyone else. The anti-vaccination movement must be confronted at the social and political levels like the dangerous societal illness it is.
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