Fans who attended the January 11 Trail Blazers game against the Hornets at Portland’s Moda Center have been told they have been exposed to measles in the wake of a local outbreak. The outbreak is connected to a strong regional anti-vaccination community centered in the nearby Vancouver, Washington, area and has sickened 23 individuals including 15 kids. And the irresponsible behavior of the parents refusing to vaccinate has not only jeopardized their own children but a full 19,393 people in attendance at an NBA game. It isn’t clear what the consequences will be for them. But it should be. There are strong legal precedents for fining, quarantining, or prosecuting individuals who knowingly spread infectious diseases. It’s time to use those precedents to hold anti-vaxxers accountable for their decisions.
It should be noted that, at least in Portland, anyone exposing the public to measles could be quarantined under Oregon Control of Disease statutes that specifically state: “No person shall willfully cause the spread of any communicable disease within this state.” And to further point out that law enforcement can be used to enforce quarantines. In California and eight other states, there are laws that allow the criminal prosecution and fining of individuals who endanger the public with the spread of infectious diseases, even if they are doing so by proxy. In Europe and Australia, where vaccination refusal has reached alarming levels, parents who do not vaccinate their children can be subject to fines from $600 in Italy to as much as $3,000 in Germany.
Legal ramifications are becoming a norm. And that’s as it should be.
These measures may sound extreme. They are. So is the public health risk. In fact, the World Health Organization recently placed vaccination refusal as one of the top health crises menacing the globe. So it would make sense to start holding anti-vaxxers accountable for the risk they pose, not just to their own communities, but to the public at large.
The fact that measles infection is spreading in the Northwestern U.S. is especially egregious given how infectious that disease is and how effective the vaccine is. At some point, the issue of personal liberty butts up against issues of public safety and child endangerment.
It should be noted that the precedents for prosecuting individuals passing on infectious diseases do not originate from the noblest intentions. In fact, they are couched in a history of homophobia. Many the disease-related statutes currently on the books in 26 American states are related to HIV infection specifically. The best of these focus on punishing individuals who knowingly and intentionally pass HIV to innocent and unaware sexual partners. The worst of them criminalize homosexual acts because they are related to the transmission of HIV.
That said, while ethically dubious, HIV laws offer a path forward in pushing back on those individuals who refuse to vaccinate children for personal reasons. The fact is that an unvaccinated child could become infected with the measles virus and not present symptoms for up to eight days. During that time they are a vector, sharing the measles virus wherever they go.
It’s one thing to be wary of prosecuting someone who engaged in sexual intercourse with a willing and trusting sexual partner aware of the risks of unprotected sex. But that wariness should disappear when the victim is a random air traveler or a Damian Lillard fan. Those individuals are living their lives and have been placed in jeopardy by the willfully selfish and ignorant actions of an irresponsible parent.
Holding these parents accountable is critical. More education is not going to do the trick. It has been well established that anti-vaxxers often become more hardline in their views the more science they are exposed to. However, if you jeopardize a person’s financial security or freedom they may become a bit more motivated to question their ludicrous convictions.
The point is not that we should make vaccines mandatory, but that we should make the consequences for refusing to vaccinate kids and then putting other people at risk onerous. That’s not a semantic difference. Anti-vaxxers have railed against government interference in family decision-making. Fine. Let them win that battle. But you can’t have your disease and share it — or at least you shouldn’t be able to do so without winding up in court.