My mother suffers from chronic myeloid leukemia. Her immune system has been ravaged by chemotherapy and she's no longer safe from the most mundane diseases.
Likewise for a good friend fighting breast cancer, who has made her battle public on Facebook. While she's held on to her dignity and courage, I've watched her lose her hair and, more important, immunity to viruses such as the one that causes measles.
Through no choice of their own, both of these brave women are prime targets for our country's growing unvaccinated community and the diseases they carry.
Sadly, public figures such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are now contributing to the fog of misinformation that's leading to the burgeoning measles epidemic.
In a recent CNBC interview, Paul stated his belief that vaccinations should be voluntary and contradicted the overwhelming scientific consensus that they are safe and effective. The senator's statements — from which he now seeks to distance himself — are irresponsible and alarming.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, measles is a dangerous disease. Serious complications can include pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and seizures. One or two of every thousand who contract the disease will die. The World Health Organization estimates that measles killed 164,000 people in 2008.
Adding fuel to the fire is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who recently chimed in with the opinion that vaccinations should be a matter of choice. In fact, during his 2009 gubernatorial campaign, Christie wrote a letter supporting anti-vaccination groups and their false and dangerous assertions that vaccines cause autism (experts have debunked this claim many times over).
Should one person have the right to willingly carry a dangerous disease to the public when a safe and effective vaccine is available?
Paul and Christie don't seem to understand that it's not just those with compromised immune systems who are at risk. Many people are simply too young to receive the measles vaccine. The CDC recommends a minimum age of 12 months for the measles vaccination, with the second dose usually given between the ages of four to six years for full coverage.
According to the 2013 U.S. Census (the latest figures available), there were just under 19 million children in the country under age five. That's a large and precious group at risk.
Should vaccinations really be voluntary? The problem is this: it isn't simply a matter of personal choice. When you don't vaccinate yourself or your children, you're putting others at risk. We no longer allow smokers to light up in public places because we know their smoke causes cancer.
Consider someone infected with the measles, shedding the virus for days in restaurants, movie theaters, hospitals or grade schools before they ever begin to show symptoms. Is there a difference?
As public figures with the power to shape our laws — and public opinion — elected officials such as Paul and Christie do themselves and their constituents a disservice when they make ill-informed statements about vaccines. I'm especially saddened to hear such words from Paul, a fellow Kentuckian. We're better than this.