Parents who do not vaccinate their children may be able to be held liable when their choice causes other people to be harmed. Measles, a childhood illness that was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, has returned with a vengeance infecting hundreds of people in Illinois. These latest outbreaks put numerous children and people with compromised immune systems at risk as they are unable to get the same vaccinations as other individuals.  

What Is Measles?

Measles is a viral infection that causes fever, cough, inflamed eyes, runny nose, and widespread rashes. It can also cause diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia which can often become fatal. There is no cure for measles; the disease usually passes after 7 to 10 days. Therefore, most medical care is palliative – designed to control symptoms and make the person feel more comfortable.

Who is at risk?

There are two types of people at risk in a measles outbreak. First, those who are too young to receive the vaccine (i.e., infants) are at high risk because measles can be deadly if it infects a young child. Second, those who cannot get vaccinated because their immune system is compromised (i.e., those with auto-immune diseases).

Who is to blame?

The source of the outbreak can be traced to parents who choose not to vaccinate their children or to deviate from the recommended schedule of vaccinations. Many parents continue to believe that vaccines cause autism due to a 1998 paper published by the (former) Dr. Wakefield. Mr. Wakefield’s medical license was suspended and the paper he published retracted by Lancet (the medical journal) after his findings were debunked and solidly disproven. Unfortunately, a combination of Internet conspiracy theories and celebrity endorsements have ensured that the myth continues to have life.

Vaccination Rules

Children who attend public school are required to get vaccinated (i.e., home-schooled children are not) unless there is an exception. Before 2015, parents had three choices to opt out of the vaccination requirement: (1) personal belief; (2) religious; and (3) medical. Due to the outbreak, the Illinois General Assembly repealed the personal belief exception. Therefore, children to attend public school must get vaccinated unless there is a medical reason they cannot, or their parents have a religious objection. However, there are growing concerns that some parents may start abusing the religious exemption – similar to the way the personal belief exemption was abused.