Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

Local doctors are worried. School nurses are worried. Cancer patients are terrified. The number of parents opting out of vaccinating their children has now reached a critical mass, putting at risk not only their own children, but the entire community. Particularly at risk are young and old alike taking anti-cancer medications, those with autoimmune diseases, infants, and the elderly. The metaphoric “herd immunity” is now in grave peril.

Yet the science is unequivocal. Vaccines are safe. Period.

Given the geometric spike in cases of autism several years ago, people began casting about for an explanation of the cause. A theory was hatched that the vaccines themselves, or the binding agent that enabled several vaccines to be administered in one dose, was a possible cause. Some celebrities — not scientists, celebrities — latched on to the theory and used their celebrity megaphone to spread that disinformation. Concerned scientists launched studies to prove or disprove the theory. The early studies, with a few hundred data points, were clear: there was no causal link. Subsequent studies have now provided hundreds of thousands of data points, nearly a million, with the same conclusion: No causal link whatsoever. But the misinformation persists.

There are two major contributing factors.

The first, ironically, is a function of the success of efforts to eradicate these diseases. For a while, they were gone. Young parents, concerned about their children’s safety, simply have no vision and no memory of the scourge of these childhood diseases when they were rampant. Parents were terrified. Polio, measles, mumps, and whooping cough caused agony and worse among generations of children. One moment a parent would have a happy healthy child, and the next, polio would cause the child to be lame, maimed, or need an iron lung to breathe. And those were the survivors. Measles, mumps, and whooping cough made children unbearably miserable, and sometimes caused lifelong side effects.  One local grandfather recalls that as a young child he thought the actual formal name for public drinking fountains was “whooping cough” because whenever he ran to drink from one his mother would shriek, “NO! Whooping cough!” It’s hard now to imagine the terror parents lived with at the time.

When the causes and cures for these diseases were finally discovered, parents rushed to get their children protected. They considered vaccines a godsend. No longer would their children face the horror of these awful diseases. In time, the vaccines were so successful that these diseases was virtually wiped off the earth, or confined to small remote civilizations. Sufficient numbers of the community were vaccinated so that even if one or two cases somehow emerged, the community as a whole was safe.

Scientists estimate that safety number for “herd immunity” is 95 percent. Hence the campaign, “Strive for 95.”

In several communities we have now fallen below that number. This places at grave risk all those whose immune systems are compromised: cancer patients, those taking cancer-suppressing drugs, those with autoimmune diseases, infants too young to be vaccinated, and the elderly.

There is another group at risk, which is the second major contributing factor to the problem we face. Though the vaccines have been proven to be absolutely safe, a small number of those receiving them do not have successful outcomes, and are not entirely protected. Boosters are essential, and help with this issue. But for some young people the vaccines are not entirely effective. These young people can contract the disease if exposed. This factor also leads some parents to decide against vaccinating, placing their children at far greater risk.

At root, the decision to opt out of vaccinating has proven selfish. Parents always make the best decisions they can regarding their own children’s well-being, and the decision to opt out is no doubt motivated by noble impulses, but it is based on misinformation and it can be proven deadly to others and to the community at large.

We have already seen evidence of this selfishness through the outbreak of measles in Disneyland. Children most at risk — those suffering from cancer or terminal illnesses, or those with compromised immune systems — often “make a wish” to go to Disneyland. They can no longer go there in safety, and those visits have been stopped. How sad that these children’s one joy has been taken away by those who profess to care about children.

It is said that in recent years we have lost the community spirit that used to be this country’s glue, binding us all together. At every level we see fewer and fewer acts done for “the good of the order,” and more done for purely self-serving purposes. This is not who we are as a nation or as a community. If we don’t act properly because it’s the right thing to do, we should at least realize that in the case of vaccines, it is in our own best self-interest.

Vaccines are safe. The community’s health depends upon the greatest possible number of people having immunity. Be smart. Be safe. Be wise. Make sure your own children are immunized, and every young person you know. This is one case where the future really does depend on us.