Imagine if scientists developed a vaccine for the coronavirus that has killed more than 3,000 people and is on the verge of becoming a worldwide pandemic. Now imagine that you couldn’t receive it because of a medical condition.
Your safety — perhaps even your life — would depend on your neighbors lining up for the vaccine, so they would stop its spread before it infects you.
Now imagine they refused. Because Jenny McCarthy said so.
One reason that anti-vaccine sentiment has spread in the United States is that the terror of deadly epidemics is slowly slipping from living memory. Vaccines have been so successful that Americans forgot why they’re important. Fewer and fewer have experienced a polio outbreak, or remember the hundreds of kids who used to die from measles every year before a vaccine became available in the 1960s.
But mandatory vaccination was, and still is, a critical public health strategy. The coronavirus ought to nudge states like Massachusetts to update their laws around vaccination in order to deal with the parents who endanger their kids and everyone else by withholding childhood vaccines.
If the reminder provided by the coronavirus isn’t reason enough for lawmakers to act, they should look to Maine, where a referendum to weaken that state’s strong new vaccination law went down in a landslide defeat Tuesday. It’s evidence that while anti-vaxxers might be loud, they’re not the majority.
Indeed, if you went just by the people who showed up at legislative hearings or flooded the inboxes of lawmakers with angry e-mails, you’d think anti-vaccine passion was rampant. But the Maine referendum garnered the support of only 26 percent of voters.
If Massachusetts passed a law as strong as Maine’s to ensure people vaccinate their kids, a referendum challenging it would be unlikely to get any more traction here. Yet a bill filed by state Representative Andy Vargas of Haverhill that would remove a key loophole that parents are using to avoid vaccination has been stuck in legislative limbo.
Vargas’s proposal would eliminate the option for parents to claim a religious exemption from the law requiring vaccinations for measles, mumps, chickenpox, and other maladies. That’s the same change Maine made. As in Maine, kids who have genuine medical conditions that prevent vaccination would still be exempt. In Massachusetts, the number of people claiming such religious waivers is on the rise, with some schools reporting exemption rates as high as 20 to 25 percent.
No major religious tradition forbids vaccines. Even if one did, the notion that religious exemptions should exist for public health measures is odd, and inappropriate for a secular democracy. Would anyone seriously suggest that the passengers quarantined aboard the Grand Princess, the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship off the coast of California, be allowed off if they say their religion forbids quarantines?
Thus far, there’s no vaccine for the coronavirus. But this scary outbreak should remind us how lucky we are to have vaccines against other life-threatening diseases — and of the need for laws to ensure those vaccines are used. Massachusetts should get this legislation to protect the public on the books.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.