Public-health leaders should avoid pro-vaccine labels

Top choice. Washington Post editorial page editor Susan Glasser just weighed in on the measles outbreak in DC and the question of whether the city’s health department did enough to stop it. She points out that there is no “right way” to respond to outbreaks such as these — “the various approaches chosen in the United States and abroad vary widely.” Glasser thinks it’s important for the local health department to act promptly, strong and concise.

That’s good advice. But we don’t see it as Glasser positions for the department to have an opinion on what vaccinations are necessary. Unless the cure for measles can be patented and developed in DC, which is possible, the city’s health department is free to adopt federal standards, as most do. Indeed, we think that just making such choices makes sense, given what we have learned about vaccines since we’ve joined health policy debates.

If the Health Department feels strongly that mandatory vaccinations are not needed, then it should make that point with patients and their families. But to call out and categorize disease outbreaks as “man-made” illnesses that can be stemmed, as some do, isn’t just respectful, it’s sound public health policy. Forcing adults to accept vaccination is not necessarily how to keep vaccine-preventable diseases at bay.

So is it really appropriate for Glasser to use the phrase “mandatory vaccination?” Should public health officials be using such a word in political communications? Of course not. The best way to prevent measles outbreaks is to teach people about measles and why it is so dangerous. Don’t have children or ask friends to not have kids. And don’t be too complacent, because measles is back.

Better safe than sorry. Longer term, Glasser might also want to consider the Health Department’s poorly thought-out data collection in the latter part of the 1990s. Remember the case of the woman who died in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1999 from whooping cough (sometimes called pertussis)? Of the 1,636 whooping cough cases the year before, more than half were documented as having occurred in medically vaccinated individuals. And because DC had such a poor record tracking pertussis — it was cited among the worst in the United States in 2004, for example — one would have expected the status quo to stay that way. Since the city’s health department started collecting data on in-person vaccine exemptions from school vaccines, it hasn’t had that problem.

Yes, it’s different. But it’s no reason for shame. The point is, preventive care is necessary. Period. No exceptions.

As well as better informed about the facts, DC residents can help keep their kids safe by not parroting ignorant stories made up about vaccines that may have nothing to do with reality. Further, they can (and should) ask their kids (and their friends’ kids) if they have been vaccinated, and then challenge the vaccine-hesitant to understand that if you don’t get your children vaccinated, you’re putting them at risk.

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