With a measles outbreak now affecting more than 700 people in 22 states, Professor Robert Field discussed the history of vaccination resistance on New Orleans’ WWL Radio on April 29.
Measles had been eradicated in 2000, prompting pockets of people to think that vaccination was no longer necessary, Field said, but a rise in unvaccinated individuals created conditions that permitted a resurgence.
"With time, the vaccine would be a victim of its own success,” he said. “One kid in a classroom developing measles sneezes, and all the unvaccinated kids are at risk.”
Field said resistance to vaccinations predates the development of vaccines in the 1700s.
“The smallpox vaccine which was invented in 1796 against a horrible, deadly plague engendered resistance,” Field said.
There was little resistance to the polio vaccine in the 1950s, he said, because so many people had experienced or witnessed the devastating effects of the disease to cooperate.
Field said generations that lacked firsthand experience of that history were influenced by a 1999 paper by Timothy Wakefield that linked measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Though Wakefield’s claims have been disproved “dozens and dozens of times,” Field said, the paper sparked suspicions about vaccines more broadly.
Existing law stems from a 1905 Supreme Court case affirming that individuals are free not to take things into their body, except when their conduct harms other people.
“When you have something like smallpox or measles or polio, and you’re not getting vaccinated puts other people at risk, that’s where you draw the line,” he said.
Relying on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control, states have the authority to mandate vaccines, Field said. While all states mandate some vaccines, he said that states can make opting out fairly easy, and some states allow people to refuse vaccinations, either for religious or philosophical reasons.
“That’s the issue: how easy those opt-outs are,” said Field, an authority on health policy and law who directs the JD-MPH program and holds a joint appointment at the Dornsife School of Public Health.