Last month, health officials announced a measles outbreak affecting at least 40 people in the Pacific Northwest. Accordingly, social media erupted with condemnation of American “anti-vaxxers.” Anti-vaxxers are Americans who, for whatever reason, abstain or delay vaccine schedules for their children, especially the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. This eruption, like much of what happens on social media, is ignorant.
Anti-vaxxers are not generally the cause of measles outbreaks in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease generally comes from outside the country. Indigenous measles transmission has been eliminated in the U.S. Instead, measles outbreaks in the United States originate with foreigners entering the country or with Americans traveling abroad to foreign countries.
According to the CDC’s data, ever since measles was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, nearly every single subsequent case of measles is known or suspected to have originated in a foreign country. One outbreak occurred at an illegal-alien detention facility on the southern U.S. border. Another originated with a refugee from Asia. The source of the present outbreak in Seattle is not yet known, but Seattle’s last measles case came from Europe. Americans contract measles from firsthand or intermediate exposure to foreigners. Unvaccinated children in or near foreign-enclave communities in the U.S. are especially vulnerable.
Despite these facts, anti-vaxxers are widely condemned, while the correlation to foreign travel is rarely acknowledged. Condemnation is reserved wholly for American nonconformists. The hatred targets Jews, Muslims and Christians who abstain from vaccines for religious reasons. It also targets secular progressives whose abstention from vaccines is rooted in the same primitivism as their attitudes toward fossil fuels, organic products, and GMO foods.
Anybody who expresses contempt against anti-vaxxers should acknowledge that unvaccinated foreigners at least as much to blame as unvaccinated Americans.
And, as far as public policy goes, the case for mandating the vaccination of foreigners entering the U.S. — or for mandating the vaccination of Americans traveling to foreign countries — is stronger than the case for indiscriminately mandating vaccination for all Americans.
First, international travel is a choice. Being born in the U.S. is not. Taxing people’s willful choices is more fair than taxing the accident of their birth. Unvaccinated Americans who choose to travel abroad and unvaccinated foreigners who choose to travel to the US are more fairly subject to vaccination mandates than everyone born in the U.S. would be.
Second, voluntary vaccination in the U.S. tends to sufficiently protect Americans from measles. The vast majority of Americans live in communities where vaccination rates are so high that the whole community has “herd immunity” to measles. Herd immunity protects those that are too young to receive the vaccine as well as those few conscientious objectors who choose to not receive the vaccine.
Americans who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and American anti-vaxxers are both in danger of measles originating from abroad. Any community in the U.S. that is at risk of losing its herd immunity — whether because of a high concentration of unvaccinated foreigners or unvaccinated hipsters at Whole Foods — should consider a public vaccination campaign.
But because vaccination rates and the risks of measles exposure vary from community to community, the public policy solutions should vary, too. People living near foreign-born enclaves, big cities, or tourist attractions are at greater risk of measles exposure than people living in low-density areas.
Yet everyone in America is less in danger of measles than of every other significant mortality risk. Measles in 2019 isn’t polio circa 1950. And there’s a reason you haven’t vaccinated yourself against smallpox or anthrax. Today, it is more dangerous to let your children go swimming than to delay their measles vaccines. Americans condemning anti-vaxxers for public health reasons should be at least as judgmental against Americans who engage in promiscuous sex, recreational drug use or other activities that present greater dangers to public health than abstaining from vaccines.
Of course, it feels better to judge nonconformists than to judge foreigners, lovers and partiers.
Facts don’t care about your feelings. You can calibrate your judgment about vaccines according to the science of how measles spreads and how dangerous it is, or you can wage a hate campaign against anti-vaxxers and cheer whenever their kids get sick (or fantasize about their kids dying). But you can’t do both and, sadly, far more Americans choose hatred.
Lew Olowski is an attorney and formerly a clerk to Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Lew served under Peter Robinson, who is among the world’s premiere international criminal trial lawyers litigating war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. He is a graduate of Georgetown Law School.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.