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What’s up with the anti-vaccination movement?

If you’re anything like me, this past year may have been the first time you’d heard of the anti-vaccination movement, a bizarre two-for-one of dogged skeptics and good old-fashioned bigots selling a seriously dangerous form of anti-science, anti-facts rhetoric. What confuses me even more so than the opposition to vaccines is the position this apparent controversy has taken as a token issue in political discourse.

In a debate last year during the Republican primaries, Donald Trump reiterated the long-debunked claim that vaccines were linked to autism, and last July, Jill Stein criticized mandatory vaccinations for school-aged children. It seems that politicians on both ends of the spectrum have had a hand in morphing vaccination from a non-controversial issue to one that is almost guaranteed to be brought up whenever politicians invite questions from their constituents.

I decided this merited some research. I was indeed familiar with the charge that vaccinations were linked to autism, and that those claims were essentially fact-free. So why are vaccines suddenly such a topic of discussion? Perhaps the rise in debate over this issue can be linked to its myriad celebrity supporters. Kirstie Alley, Jim Carrey, and Jenny McCarthy have all expressed doubt over the efficacy of vaccinations.

A popular talking point for “anti-vaxxers” is the importance of maintaining a parent’s right to make medical decisions on behalf of their children. Opponents of mandatory vaccination claim that such policies undermine that right. This line of reasoning, of course, obfuscates the critical purpose of vaccination that is at the core of mandatory vaccination laws. Children are required to have been vaccinated before they enter school because of something called “herd immunity” — if the majority of a localized population has been vaccinated, the risk of those around them who are vulnerable to contracting an illness is substantially lowered. Those who push this talking point show remarkable ignorance towards the needs of those children who may possess weaker immune systems due to any number of illnesses.

Dismissing the needs of others out of a desire to push an unsupported, medically inaccurate fringe belief is extraordinarily selfish at best and reckless at worst. If only this type of rhetoric began and ended with meaningless talking points; unfortunately, it’s already begun to have visible repercussions. A recent study by the journal Pediatrics indicated that cases of whooping cough were 2.5 times more common in areas where large numbers of parents had requested vaccination exemptions on the grounds of “personal belief.” This particular contagious illness is on the rise. In 2012, the CDC released a report stating that cases of whooping cough were the highest they’d been in 50 years.

The legal and moral right to an opinion is indisputable, but the right to force others to bear the burden of that opinion if it is socially or medically harmful is not. “Personal beliefs” are all well and good until they begin to pose a public health risk.