Kevin Stitt, a Tulsa businessman and current GOP nominee for Oklahoma Governor, is apparently one of the growing number of Americans who has decided not to vaccinate some of his children due to a belief in unfounded rumors and a disbelief in science.
The Republican nominee for Governor in Oklahoma expressed skepticism of childhood vaccinations in a speech earlier this year, aligning himself with a fringe movement that equates immunization with government overreach.
At an appearance before a conservative political forum this past February, Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt said he personally did not vaccinate some his own kids and opposed legislation that would require vaccinations for children if they wanted to attend public schools.
“I believe in choice,” Stitt said, “And we’ve got six children and we don’t vaccinate, we don’t do vaccinations on all of our children. So we definitely pick and choose which ones we’re gonna do. It’s gotta be up to the parents, we can never mandate that. I think there’s legislation right now that are trying to mandate that to go to public schools, it’s absolutely wrong. My wife was home schooled, I went to public schools, our kids go to Christian school, and that’s back to a parent’s choice.”
This kind of dangerous thinking has led to several recent outbreaks and resurgences of diseases that had until fairly recently been almost completely contained by widespread vaccinations.
Case Study: 2017 Minnesota Measles Outbreak
The 2017 Minnesota measles outbreak is a quintessential example of what can happen to populations with low vaccination coverage. (The existing immunizations statute in Minnesota does not outwardly recognize religion as a reason for claiming an exemption, however, the non-medical exemption may include religious beliefs.) The outbreak was largely confined to a group of Somali immigrants, whose vaccination rates declined to approximately 40% in 2017, amid fears of a vaccine-autism linkage. As seen in the above table, a community needs to have a minimum of 83-94% vaccination coverage to maintain herd immunity against measles. This community had less than half of the coverage necessary to protect them from infection. Among 79 total cases in this measles outbreak, 71 were confirmed to be unvaccinated. Measles is highly infectious, so it’s no surprise that the disease took hold in a community of unvaccinated people.
And the beliefs that have been influencing the anti-vaxxer movement are based on a completely bogus study that was long ago proven to be fraudulent.
The vaccine-autism myth is one chilling example of fraudulent science. February 28, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of an infamous article published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, in which Andrew Wakefield, a former British doctor, falsely linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. The paper eventually was retracted by the co-authors and the journal. Wakefield was de-licensed by medical authorities for his deceit and “callous disregard” for children in his care. It took nearly two decades for the UK immunization rates to recover. By the end, UK families had experienced more than 12,000 cases of measles, hundreds of hospitalizations — many with serious complications — and at least three deaths.
In the U.S., measles was declared eliminated in 2000. Since 2000, however, there has been a resurgence of measles, with more than 2,216 reported cases. Wakefield’s anti-vaccine fanaticism contributed to the 2015 outbreak in Disneyland in California, which eventually infected more than 130 people, and to the 2017 measles outbreaks in Minnesota, where his message persuaded many parents not to vaccinate their children.
The vaccine-autism myth has also prompted an alarming number of millennials — the generation that came of age in the era of Wakefield’s misinformation —in the U.S. not to vaccinate their children. Vaccine reluctance does not apply just to measles; flu kills 100 to 300 children under age 5 each year, and up to 85% of them were not vaccinated when they died.
There is no other way to say it: anti-vaxxers are dangerous to public health. And now, an anti-vaxxer wants to be elected Governor of Oklahoma, a position that has power over one of the main instruments by which anti-vaxxers can be somewhat prevented from endangering the children of other parents: the school system.
State governments are responsible for implementing vaccination requirements for school-aged children and healthcare workers. Parents of school-aged children are able to circumvent these requirements by taking advantage of different state-specific exemptions available to them. California, Mississippi and West Virgina are the only states that accept only medical vaccinations exemptions. The remaining 47 states and the District of Columbia accept nonmedical vaccine exemptions, including for philosophical and religious purposes. Eighteen states offer philosophical exemptions, making it easy for anti-vaxxers to opt out of vaccinations for virtually any reason.