In 1713, Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston minister who would bring the practice of smallpox variolation to the colonies, watched helplessly as measles devastated his family. On October 18 of that year he wrote in his diary, “The Measles coming into the Town, it is likely to be a Time of Sickness, and much Trouble in the Families of the Neighbourhood.” That day his eldest son became ill. Two daughters developed measles over the next few days.
It comes to no surprise that the recent outbreak of more than 100 cases (at this writing) of measles in the nation opened up contentious debate over vaccinations, which in turn , has a profound impact on public health. Though measles were declared no longer endemic in the United States more than a decade ago, it has not been eradicated. As long as measles exist around the globe, still common in some countries in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, the threat of its introduction by people outside of the country will continue to remain.
People sometimes imagine that whether or not to vaccinate is a personal decision—that it only affects your own children. And other people assume that as long as their own children are vaccinated, they don’t need to worry about what their neighbors do. These fallacies come from a fundamental misunderstanding of how vaccines work.
The scientific evidence is strong--vaccines save lives and prevent dangerous diseases like measles. But perhaps the most poignant lesson is that good science alone is not always enough. Laws and policies matter a lot. As the US experiences a significant measles outbreak, one lesson is clear: science and policy go hand-in-hand. In order to fully realize the power of vaccines, we also need strong laws and policies to support high immunization rates.