The story of mumps, a college, and religious objections

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Used to be, conspiracy theories and other fringe ideas were out there on the fringe. You had to go looking for them, and most people didn’t.

Now, crazy comes looking for us. In innocent Google searches. On cable TV talk shows. In our Facebook feeds. And because we live in a world where people increasingly think it’s perfectly fine to ignore experts when they hear some cockamamie idea they’d rather believe, it can be dangerous not just to the people who believe thoroughly discredited claims — like the one that says childhood immunizations cause autism — but to the rest of us as well.

We got a reminder of that recently when DHEC announced there was a mumps outbreak at the College of Charleston, and college officials acknowledged that nearly 200 students haven’t been vaccinated for the highly contagious disease because they turned in waivers claiming they had a “religious” objection to the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine.

S.C. colleges are allowed to make their own decisions about whether to enroll students who aren’t vaccinated against childhood diseases, but it’s not uncommon for them to follow the lead of the Legislature, which allows unvaccinated children to attend school if their parents sign a form “stating that one or more immunizations conflicts with their religious beliefs.”

A tiny portion of the population really does object to vaccines based on firmly held religious beliefs. But the number of “religious” objections in South Carolina and across the nation has grown even as participation in actual religious practices has declined. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of S.C. school students who were exempt from vaccinations for religious reasons increased by nearly 20,000. That’s out of a total student population of 796,000.

We don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the increase has coincided with anti-vax propaganda proliferating, and becoming fashionable. But even if it is a coincidence and the exemptions really are for religious objections, the fact is that the increase is dangerous.

Some people can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons — including infants. And vaccinations aren’t 100 percent effective. That means we’re all at risk of infection when we come into contact with people who haven’t been vaccinated.

So the more infectious a disease is, the more important it is for everybody who can get vaccinated to get vaccinated — to create what doctors call “herd immunity” and reduce the chance that those who can’t be vaccinated will be infected.

Mumps, measles and rubella are highly infectious and highly deadly. The measles virus, for example, can live for two hours in the air; 90 percent of the unvaccinated people nearby will be infected if one infected person coughs.

We’re fortunate that the College of Charleston outbreak was detected quickly and seems to be under control. But we might not be so lucky next time. With the number of exemptions rising, it’s time for the Legislature to change our law: Unless they have medical exemptions, those without vaccinations should be barred from our public schools, and our public colleges.

Parents should still have the right to refuse vaccinations for their children, but their children shouldn’t be allowed to put the rest of us at risk.

— The Post and Courier

Charleston, South Carolina