Finding a preschool might seem at first like just another routine chore of parenthood, another box to check off right about the time your kid turns 2 or 3. But the process is actually quite arduous, with everything from cost (can you afford a second mortgage?) to the guilt caused by leaving your child in the care of a stranger (with extensive training, to be sure) conspiring to make even the most career-oriented parents reconsider the virtues of single-income living.
And now, in 2015, in the richest, most powerful country on Earth, practically by choice we’ve added another variable into the preschool equation: How likely is it that my daughter or son will catch a frightening, heretofore eradicated sickness based on the number of parents at a school who have denied their children vaccinations?
As The Times has reported, I'm not the only concerned parent. As the count of measles cases traced to an unvaccinated Disneyland visitor grows, and as outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough and mumps continue to crop up, the tragic reality is that we have to worry -- all because of the poorly informed decisions some parents are making to not vaccinate their children.
I expect my kid to be safe at school. Fortunately, there are a lot of rules and regulations aimed at making sure that she stays safe and healthy. Like the ones that govern school nutrition. Or the numerous federal and state regulations in place to make sure my child’s school uses security cameras and has enough teachers in her room that are properly trained in childhood development. Many schools voluntarily ban tree nuts or peanuts to protect kids with severe nut allergies.
But what about regulations that protect our children from diseases that are spreading due to lower vaccination rates?
There is currently no federal law that requires students to be vaccinated to attend public schools. All 50 states require that children have certain vaccinations to attend kindergarten, but some don’t require that they have every recommended vaccine.
Then there are the loopholes. Most states allow families to file “religious”, “medical” and the alarmingly vague “personal belief” exemptions. So those who want to flout the recommendations of the medical community can do so by following their states' rules for filing an exemption from vaccinating. Shockingly, there are only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, that wisely allow only medical reasons to exempt children from vaccinations. And private schools may not have requirements at all, causing what researchers have identified as “pockets” of unvaccinated communities, further compromising local herd immunity.
Fortunately, the days of vague personal-belief exemptions could be numbered. California legislators recently introduced a bill that proposes to abolish exemptions for anything other than medical reasons. As the largest state, California’s leadership on this issue is crucial, even if it’s depressing to think that the political will for this bill is fueled by a historic rise in measles cases. Still, Sacramento's reaction is a lot better than that of a few right-wing figures who have instead parroted nonsense to score political points.
Tighter laws are crucial in mandating childhood vaccination, but schools also need to do better. Institutions that serve society by helping to develop our children socially and intellectually don’t help them by catering to parents who would rather believe discredited fringe physicians and celebrities than long-established scientific consensus. That the schools’ accommodation of these outliers puts their kids’ health at risk makes it a public health emergency.
Look, I know that putting my daughter in preschool will expose her to a lot of germs. I can tell you from experience that toddlers are kind of gross -- they’re basically walking petri dishes. They’re also not great at doing the simple preventative tasks -- such as washing hands -- needed to stop the spread of illness. They need the help of adults to keep them safe from the really bad, potentially life-threatening diseases. I want to go back to just worrying about snotty colds and ear infections, but for that we need parents to step up and make sure our children are getting vaccinated.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer