Maybe this is what it’s going to take to wake up some parents who’ve decided they know better than their doctors. Infectious diseases once thought eradicated in the United States are roaring back as growing numbers of children aren’t getting shots.

It’s really that simple.

The numbers keep rising, because measles is extremely contagious among unvaccinated people. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 764 confirmed cases of measles as of Monday. That’s double last year’s total, and the highest number in the United States in 25 years. Four of those were found in Maryland.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there had been no continuous disease transmission for at least 12 months. The CDC, as well as the World Health Organization, said it was all due to effective vaccination programs. At that time, the WHO also set a goal of eradicating the disease from the planet by 2020. Gone. Never to be seen again. Like smallpox. That sounds a bit overly ambitious and optimistic now, given this recent outbreak directly related to our collectively letting our guard down with regard to vaccinations.

Frances Phillips, Maryland’s deputy secretary for public health, says the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is the most effective way to avoid those diseases, and health officials strongly encourage parents to follow vaccination guidelines. Two doses of the MMR vaccine are 97% effective in preventing infections. Since measles is so contagious, it spreads easily in areas with higher levels of unvaccinated individuals, and this places newborns and others who can’t have vaccines for medical reasons at a huge risk.

But remember: Vaccinations protect not just the children who receive the shots, but everyone else as well. When enough of a given community gets vaccinated, diseases can’t spread because there aren’t enough unvaccinated people to catch the disease, creating what’s called “herd immunity.”

Herd immunity is an important function of vaccinations. Some people cannot safely be vaccinated because of allergies or a weak immune system. These people have no choice but to rely on herd immunity. The herd immunity threshold depends on the disease, but hyper-contagious diseases like measles require 90% to 95% vaccination levels for herd immunity to be effective.

As long as the number of children without vaccinations stays below 5%, and it has, you shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about a major measles epidemic. Still, the trend of decreasing percentages of vaccinated children is concerning. Although herd immunity remains strong enough to protect against large-scale outbreaks, cases of pertussis (whooping cough) and measles are on the rise because of vaccine opt-outs.

So what can we do? Can people be legally forced to comply? It’s tempting to say government shouldn’t force people to get vaccines, and that people deserve the freedom to make their own choices about vaccines. But those who forgo vaccinations aren’t just making choices for themselves. They’re making choices for the vulnerable populations that rely on herd immunity.

This country doesn’t allow conscientious objectors to, say, ignore speeding laws. The rights of others to exist in a safe environment supersede those of the objectors. When one person’s freedom interferes with another’s safety, governments can and should intervene. A public school, for example, has every right to require all students to receive the recommended vaccines before enrolling. Such mandatory vaccine policies can go a long way toward protecting the rest of the population from the rise in anti-vaccine attitudes currently driving down vaccination numbers.

Protect your children and others from this deadly disease. Get vaccinated.

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