Editorial: Crack down on disinformation about vaccines

Published 9:47 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Let’s make this perfectly clear: The fact that no child died this spring and summer in what was one of the worst measles outbreaks to hit Minnesota in years is a result of caring parents, top-notch medical care and the dedication of the state’s world-class public health professionals, who put in massive amounts of overtime to rein in this highly contagious disease’s spread.

Let’s make another thing clear: The lack of such a tragedy cannot be credited to an irresponsible falsehood still peddled in anti-vaccine circles — that measles is a relatively benign disease whose risks are overstated. “Measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available,” according to the World Health Organization. “In 2015, there were 134,200 measles deaths globally — about 367 deaths every day or 15 deaths every hour.”

This is not fake news. It is not a conspiracy theory ginned up by Big Pharma. It is reality, and behind those numbers are grieving families who put a child in an early grave because of a disease that is vaccine-preventable. As for those who shrug off measles deaths as a risk limited to Third World countries, consider what happened during Minnesota’s last large outbreak in 1990. Three children died of measles complications in a state that is home to two medical centers — the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota — that are among the world’s best.

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Now that Minnesota health officials have declared the 2017 measles outbreak to be officially over, it is time for state lawmakers to take strong steps to prevent the next one. That’s especially true as Minnesota’s anti-vaccine activists have garnered national headlines for continuing their reckless crusade even as measles still spread.

Health officials identified 79 cases here after the first illness was identified on April 11. Most who became ill were children under 10, and most had not been vaccinated against the disease. The majority of the cases were in the state’s Somali-American community, where measles vaccination rates dropped precipitously in recent years after targeting by anti-vaccine activists.

The World Health Organization estimates that the measles vaccine saved more than 20 million children’s lives between 2000 and 2015. Lawmakers should focus energetically on measures here to boost vaccination rates and combat dangerous disinformation about the measles vaccine’s safety. There are several clear action items:

• Eliminate the state’s “personal belief” vaccine exemption. Minnesota’s laws are among the loosest in the nation in allowing parents to forgo shots for their children. Tightening the exemption to require a valid medical reason is a much better alternative. California has done this, and it has boosted vaccination rates.

• Update state laws to make explicit the authority that health officials have to exclude unvaccinated individuals from schools and child care during outbreaks.

• Strengthen the ability that the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice has to track down and sanction medical providers who convey inaccurate information about the measles vaccine to patients and the public. The board’s mission is to protect the public’s health by ensuring that those who practice here are “competent, ethical practitioners with the necessary knowledge and skills appropriate to their title and role.” The board, however, is regrettably limited to reacting to complaints at this time. It also may need direction from state lawmakers to ensure that its standards of practice encompass providers’ role in spreading vaccine disinformation.

Legislators should not wait until the start of the next session in February to get going. These action items provide compelling reasons to call a hearing this fall. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, merits praise for her openness to holding such a forum. Vaccine disinformation is a public health plague and it must be stopped.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 15

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