Since the turn of the 20th century, mandatory vaccination has been one of America’s greatest weapons in not only battling outbreaks and eradicating certain diseases, but also preventing them. Though not without significant pushback from anti-vaxxers, who have been in the U.S. just as long.
That’s why to medical historians and ethicists, the controversy playing out over New York City’s mandatory vaccination order as the city battles a widespread measles outbreak is not an unfamiliar story. In fact, while anti-vaxxers are in the minority today—nationally, the median vaccine refusal rate among families with children in kindergarten is 2.2 percent—those who emerged in the late 19th century were fairly influential in loosening those laws.
New York City has seen 359 cases of measles since last October. Almost all are concentrated in Williamsburg, and involve unvaccinated children under 18. A little more than 300 were reported this year, accounting for almost half of the 626 cases in the U.S.—currently the second biggest outbreak since 2000, when measles was declared eliminated (meaning no continuous transmission for more than 12 months). The largest outbreak in the U.S. was in 2014, with 667 cases. Globally, there is a resurgence of measles, with cases up 300 percent since last year, according to UNICEF.