Editorial: Allow teenagers to protect themselves from their anti-vaxx parents

Lindenberger testifies on vaccinations on Capitol Hill, Washington, USA - 05 Mar 2019
Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old student who received numerous vaccinations against his mother’s wishes, testifies during a Senate committee hearing in Washington on March 5.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA-EFE / REX)

California law gives teenagers the legal right to consent to abortions, obtain birth control, get tested for HIV or vaccinated for sexually transmitted diseases, even if their parents object. Should they also have the right to seek out immunization for other serious and potentially deadly diseases such as measles, tetanus and polio?

It’s a reasonable question here — and everywhere — as measles cases continue to surge globally and in the U.S., and faith in vaccinations has eroded to the point that the World Health Organization listed vaccine skepticism as one of the biggest threats to human health in 2019. It’s one thing to allow parents to make healthcare decisions, even bad ones, for their babies and toddlers who can’t make rational choices for themselves. It’s another thing entirely to deny scientifically proven treatment to worried high school students who have followed the news and fully understand what their parents do not: that the recommended childhood immunizations are perfectly safe and not having received one puts them at risk of contracting highly contagious and serious diseases that can lead to lifelong health complications or even death.

A large measles outbreak among Orthodox Jewish communities in New York has prompted state legislators there to propose an urgent measure allowing teens 14 and older to obtain vaccinations, even over their parents’ objections. The Legislature should pass it, allowing teenagers who know better to protect themselves from the very real threat of this disease and others. Other states, such as Oregon and Washington, allow teenagers of various ages to obtain vaccinations on their own. (This is useful, in light of the major measles outbreak at the moment in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region.)

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It makes sense to enable more people to obtain safe immunizations because the diseases they protect them from are not minor. Before wide-scale adoption of vaccinations, for example, measles killed more than 2.5 million people a year. Even now, the disease routinely kills thousands of people across the globe. A quarter of measles cases are so serious they result in hospitalization. Measles infections in children can lead to pneumonia, brain damage and encephalitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, vaccinations don’t just protect the people who are vaccinated; they also raise the general “herd immunity” level that guards against disease outbreaks and protects even those too sick to get immunized.

And despite the fears and assertions of many parents, the vaccination for measles does not cause autism. Study after study have looked for and found no connection, including a major Danish study released just this month.

If kids are old enough to comprehend the danger of preventable disease, they ought to be old enough to take steps to avoid it — no matter what their uninformed parents think.

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