Friday, May 31, 2024

Why are our leaders arguing for measles outbreaks?

  Measles can do a lot more than give a child a rash.

  It can start a 104 degree fever and cause eye-swelling. About 10% of kids who get measles get ear infections.

  About 20% of people who contract measles go to the hospital. Five percent develop pneumonia. (If a child dies from measles, it’s often for that reason.) In rare cases, a child can develop encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can lead to deafness or intellectual disabilities.

  And it can spread with frightening speed, infecting 9 of 10 people.

  But since 1971, physicians have administered the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to children. It’s made a disease that once killed 500 people a year mostly marginal. (The shot, now known as the MMRV, has included the chicken pox vaccine for nearly two decades.)

  Spreading the shot and protecting as many kids as possible seems like a political lay-up.

  But this is Alabama.

  Last week, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit involving an Amish community in New York State.

  In 2022, the state fined three Amish schools for lacking student vaccination records. The local Amish community had a religious objection to vaccinations. New York State repealed religious vaccination exemptions in 2019 amid a measles outbreak.

  The community sued, arguing their religious rights were being violated. They also argued that it was unfair for New York to end religious exemptions but maintain medical ones.

  U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford ruled for the state in March, noting that New York legislators were “concerned about individuals who were claiming a nonmedical exemption despite not having a religious belief regarding vaccination.” (For the record: Amish communities generally have lower vaccination rates than the population as a whole but do not necessarily shun them entirely.)

  The case is on appeal. In their brief last week, joined by 19 other states, Marshall and Alabama Solicitor General Edmund Gerald LaCour Jr. argued that not vaccinating your kid is a matter of religious freedom.

  “The court should take with a grain of salt any grand representations about threats to public health,” the brief stated. “Respectfully, it should do so anyway in the context of individual religious freedoms.”

  In Marshall and LaCour’s eyes, preventing the spread of a deadly and highly infectious disease isn’t as important as a single person’s fear of angering God.

  Marshall has long showed more interest in legal disputes outside Alabama than the problems within it, and it would be easy to dismiss this as posturing for the religious right. Which it is, but it’s posturing coming amid some major concerns with public health.

  One, our measles immunization rates are falling.

  The CDC says Alabama’s MMRV rate was 94% in 2022-23. That may seem high, but because measles is so infectious, you need 95% coverage to assure herd immunity. If that number continues to collapse, you’re going to have a lot of children – even infants – who catch the contagious disease through no fault of their own.

  Much of that drop in vaccination rate comes from anti-vaccine rhetoric that transcends religion. But Marshall isn’t the only Alabama lawmaker using the language of faith to bludgeon hard-won gains against disease.

  Under current state law, a person who wants to claim a religious exemption from vaccines fills out a form with the local health department. He or she must also get an education on what can happen if you don’t vaccinate your child. SB 246, filed last spring by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), would have allowed a parent to claim a religious exemption in writing to a school board. With no follow-up. (The bill passed the Senate but never moved in the House.)

  And this is part of a broader campaign in Alabama to elevate religious beliefs and viewpoints — however fringe, cringe, or destructive — over all other policy considerations.

  We got rid of marriage licenses in Alabama because a handful of the state’s 68 probate judges believe a loving God objects to loving same-sex couples. We decided that an agency’s feelings about gay households were more important than placing children with supportive families. You and I are going to pay for the religious instruction of many a child whether we agree with what’s being taught or not.

  And now, private religious belief is coming for public health.

  It’s always striking that our leaders invoke the divine to hurt and silence people.

  Even though the religion most Alabamians adhere to grew out of communal gatherings that elevated the good of the whole.

  Even though the founder of that religion told his followers to keep the needs of their neighbors in mind.

  But Alabama politicians rarely ask people to think beyond themselves or the world around them, as religion at its best does. State politics aim to elevate voters’ anger and encourage them to lunge at imaginary enemies. As religion at its worst does.

  So now a basic element of public policy — not making kids sick — is being presented as a sinister government plot against the faithful.

  The genuinely faithful should pause when one of our officials raises an individual’s belief over a child’s health. In Alabama, that single belief is very likely to harm millions of innocents.

  And it’s not going to get anyone in state government closer to heaven.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. A 2024 Pulitzer finalist for Commentary, his work has also won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector.

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