Millennials in the United States are privileged to have grown up in a world unafraid of pandemics. As an early millennial, I have never encountered actual cases of frightening and debilitating diseases such as polio, diphtheria, measles and tetanus. Up until recently, I had also never encountered anyone with a case of mumps.
The mumps is a contagious disease with symptoms including fever, muscle aches, cold-like symptoms and swollen glands along the jawline.
But life is full of little ironies. Just last month, I published a vaccine advocacy book, “Jenny’s First Sleepover.” On the very same day that it received its first media publicity in The Post and Courier, the College of Charleston, where I teach, announced that there was a mumps outbreak on campus.
The book, which I published along with illustrator Kristin Coghlan, is a satirical work whose goal is to demonstrate, in an engaging, informative and darkly humorous manner, the horrible consequences of vaccine preventable diseases.
I wrote the book because it is startlingly easy for parents these days to overlook the severity of mumps and other vaccine preventable diseases. The anti-vaccination movement has gained traction by confounding the nation with irrational fears and misinformation, and the rate of vaccine hesitancy continues to rise.
While many recent mumps epidemics are the result of waning immunity among vaccinated individuals, an increasing population of highly susceptible unvaccinated individuals reduces herd immunity and increases the likelihood of outbreaks. There is nothing humorous about students suffering from vaccine preventable diseases. There is nothing humorous about their peers being frightened about possible exposures.
The state of South Carolina, along with 44 other states, allows for religious exemptions from vaccination. My university, the College of Charleston, follows the state’s example and allows students to attend who have not been vaccinated on account of religious reasons. There is absolutely no justification for this. There is no mainstream religion that advocates against vaccination, and regardless, the United States Constitution does not protect one’s religious beliefs at the expense of endangering the public welfare.
"Jenny's First Sleepover" is a satire modeled after a children's book that seeks to educate the public on the importance of vaccinations.
Yet another irony is that by allowing both religious exemptions and fraudulent medical exemptions, we are actively endangering those among us with legitimate medical exemptions. As a science educator, whenever I lecture about vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases, I attempt to make the material as relevant and personal as possible. I relate to my students that about six years ago, as I was undergoing chemotherapy for testicular cancer, a chance encounter with an unvaccinated individual could have exposed me to serious, perhaps fatal, health consequences. I also relate that as an expectant father, the health of my future infant, too young to be vaccinated, figures prominently in my mind.
Since publishing “Jenny’s First Sleepover,” I have been approached by numerous individuals — some senior citizens, some cancer patients, some pregnant women — who are fearful for their health because of the recent outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases. What does it say about our society if we are knowingly endangering the most vulnerable among us? It is time for South Carolina and the 44 other states that allow for religious exemptions to join with California, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia and bar anything but legitimate medical exemptions. It is time for our country, and my generation in particular, to remind ourselves of the horrors of polio and measles epidemics and stand together to prevent their recurrence.
Moshe Rhodes is a professor of microbial genetics at the College of Charleston.