The low vaccination rates at the Waldorf School in Santa Fe are a public health disaster in the making that should frighten all New Mexicans. If a student at that school gets measles, it is very likely that other unvaccinated students at the school will get measles. The infected students can then pass measles to others in the community, especially infants too young to be vaccinated and children with medical conditions that also prevent their being vaccinated.
It was recently reported that the parents of unvaccinated students at the school “have not expressed concern” at the school’s low vaccination rates. One could state instead that: The parents of unvaccinated students at the school are not concerned about putting their own children at risk of a disease that can cause serious illness, permanent disability, and death. One could also say that “In addition, the parents are not concerned that failure to vaccinate their own children can put others, especially young infants and children with serious medical conditions, at risk of serious illness, disability, and death”.
The Waldorf School is reported to have a communication plan in the event of an outbreak of disease at the school. However, measles is so infectious that no school communication plan is going to be able to stop its spread among the unvaccinated students. We have seen this, for example, in places like Rockland County, New York.
If a parent fails to put an infant in a car seat, we regard the parent as putting the child in harm’s way and failing to protect the well-being of that child. We do not offer personal and religious exemptions for infant car seat usage. This is so, even though the failure to put the child in a car seat does not pose risks for other children.
In the face of such low vaccination rates as those at the Waldorf School, the question for New Mexicans is not if an outbreak will occur, but when it will occur. New Mexico needs to join the other states that require childhood vaccination, except for real medical issues. Parental failure to vaccinate their children not only puts their own children at risk. Unlike with infant car seats, such failures also place other children at risk, and with measles, risks that can disable or kill.
Editor’s note: Richard Skolnik is the former director for Health for the South Asia region of the World Bank, former lecturer on Global Health at the George Washington University and Yale University, the author of Global Health 101, and the instructor for the Coursera/Yale course Essentials of Global Health.