Measles is back. The much-publicized storyline drips of the ironic: the outbreak began at Disneyland in Anaheim, California in December, yet it was an entirely preventable outbreak.

When John Enders began his investigation of measles in 1953, the disease infected some four million children per year. 50,000 were hospitalized annually. According to a biography published by The Royal Society, Enders hardly came from a calamitous background.

Born in 1897 in West Hartford, Connecticut, with a successful banker for a father, he attended private boarding school and then Yale. An English major early on, and a failed real estate investor later, he was finally exposed to the laboratory under the influence of René Dubos. Eventually earning a Ph.D. with a concentration in microbiology, he began much of his work with vaccination during World War II. His “unceasing insistence on truth … (and) his sense of wonder … at the great mystery that exists and surrounds all of God’s creation” led to much success. After earning a Nobel Prize for his discoveries that facilitated the development of the Salk vaccine, Enders refocused on “the rash diseases of childhood.”

By the early 1960s, he cultured the prototype Edmonston strain used in the first inoculations. The measles vaccine cocktail was introduced in 1963. With its contemporary permutation deemed “MMR,” (effective for measles, mumps and rubella) the vaccine has effectively eliminated the single most infectious disease on the face of the Earth since. In 2000, the disease was considered eradicated from the United States. The vaccine is a miracle of modern science. Enders is estimated to have saved 113 million lives since its introduction.

Back to Disneyland: it seems insidiously suitable that only in such a fantasy land would parents ignore scientific reality in favor of foreboding oldwives tales. One disproven, “fraudulent” study in particular continues to fuel the fire of anti-vaccination movements. Autism is the malicious antagonist of a paper published (and later rescinded) from prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The novelist, one Dr. Andrew Wakefield, has since been banned from the profession for a “callous disregard” for children participating in his research studies, as well as his having “brought the medical profession into disrepute.”

Yet, the implications of his sensational fiction endure. Anecdotes, such as that of former Playgirl and anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy, stoke the emotional flames incinerating the medical rationality of parents everywhere. Such scientific negligence disrupts public health by opening holes in the herd immunity of the population. In other words, it leads to a snowball effect. That’s how, in two years, measles cases jump 13 times.

The outbreaks have led to much polarization in the political arena. A conflict of free will versus governmental mandate has erupted. Perhaps the most concerning is the passivism of the GOP response. Political agendas convolute what is a tremendously clear issue here: vaccinate your kids. Platforms, it seems, take precedence. Arguments over the aisle put children’s lives at risks. Brainwashing via waxing poetic over constitutional rights is as much a contagion as the virus itself.

No. To me, there is no debate, nor confusion: medical realities and the preservation of human wellbeing, as based in scientific fact, should not be perverted into a philosophical, partisan, “patriotic” stalemate. It is myopic and malignant, uninformed and irresponsible.

Legislatively, Congress ought to take action on this. Exemption systems need to be overhauled. School districts must enforce vaccination requirements. Simple.

A broader point worth making here is this: remain wary of the floating heads. As future colleagues, neighbors and parents, we ought to stay educated on fact over fantasy. Use your freedom to make the obvious, uncomplicated, correct decisions. Sometimes that can be a matter of life and death.

Eli Cahan can be reached at emcahan@umich.edu.

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