A recent outbreak of measles in Texas has been traced back to the Eagle Mountain International megachurch outside Dallas. Tori Pearsons, the pastor at the Eagle Mountain Church, preached “faith healing” and discouraged her congregation from getting their routine vaccinations.
The Texas outbreak makes it the latest in a string of cases in which rare diseases have made a resurgence in the industrialized world — a wave that experts attribute to a growing anti-vaccine movement. In addition to measles outbreaks, which have appeared in places across the U.S. and northern Europe, cases of mumps and whooping cough have also emerged in unprecedented numbers. In 2012, for example, there were more than 41,000 American cases of whooping cough, making it the worst year since 1955.
Fueled by both extreme religious beliefs and pseudoscientific claims about vaccine safety, the growing community of vaccine skeptics now represents a dangerous free-rider problem with global implications. As citizens of the developed world forgo vaccinations in greater numbers, they not only increase the likelihood of outbreaks like the one in Texas, but risk aggravating already devastating epidemics in the developing world.
Many vaccine skeptics claim that vaccines are unnecessary in the industrialized world. They insist that they have access to clean water and nutritious food and are therefore no longer at risk for “Third World diseases” like measles. For example, in an article published on the anti-vaccine website, Vactruth.com, vaccine skeptic Jennifer Hutchinson writes, “Many diseases were eradicated or almost eradicated before vaccines were available, mostly due to better hygiene and nutrition and clean water.”
In some ways, Hutchinson is correct when she says that vaccines are less necessary in the developed world, though not for the reasons she mentions. In fact, vaccine skeptics in the United States can choose to remain unvaccinated with relatively low risk because they are protected by the vast majority of the population around them that is vaccinated. Aside from cases like the one in Texas in which an infected traveller came back to the United States, most would never come into contact with anyone who was carrying a disease like measles. This is a phenomenon experts call “herd immunity": when a certain percentage of the population is vaccinated, the entire population is protected from an outbreak even if the whole “herd” isn’t immunized.
The problem is that our “herd” is no longer just our local community. In a globalized world, a person carrying measles is capable of travelling to another part of the world where the population is largely not vaccinated. If we allow contagious diseases like measles to spread to places where immediate, high-quality medical attention is not available, the resulting pneumonia and severe dehydration don’t mean a few days off school — they mean death.
As the Wall Street Journal has reported, outbreaks like the one in Texas “matter to the rest of the world because measles can quickly cross oceans, setting back progress elsewhere in stopping it.”
The free-rider problem created by the unvaccinated community is, therefore, particularly sad because vaccine skeptics in the developed world are largely protected, while they put other communities, mostly less fortunate populations, at risk. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has likened this free-rider problem to a dangerous gamble, saying, “In this country, the odds are that if you choose not to get a vaccine, you're going to be fine. But you're still playing a game of Russian Roulette, and it's a dangerous and unnecessary game to play.”
And, though particularly problematic for the developing world, there are also significant domestic populations that are left at risk when skeptics choose to remain unimmunized — often groups that are already the most vulnerable. Infants who are not yet immunized, populations for whom the vaccines are less effective, often the elderly, or patients who are immunosuppressed as a result of cancer treatments or organ transplants, all rely on the rest of the population to be vaccinated. Otherwise, they would be exposed when they came into contact with someone infected with a highly contagious disease like measles. As the population that is unvaccinated grows, the likelihood of an outbreak also grows, with dire consequences for those vulnerable populations.
Choosing to remain unvaccinated is therefore not only woefully uninformed, it’s devastatingly selfish, and puts vulnerable populations both at home and abroad at risk unnecessarily. When people make the choice to remain unprotected, whether it is due to religious extremism or a misplaced fear of science they don’t understand, they are harming people who don’t have a choice. They are willingly acting in a way that undermines the medical community’s ability to protect the health of the general population, especially in areas of the world that are already ravaged by disease.
While everyone is certainly entitled to their own belief system, religious or otherwise, knowingly putting other people in harm’s way isn’t a belief system—it’s a crime.