It is ironic that the success of modern vaccination programs against ancient scourges such as measles has been part of the reason parents today are so ignorant about what these diseases can do. A recent outbreak in California has demonstrated the effects of this lack of knowledge:

Researchers have found that past outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases are more likely in places where there are clusters of parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated…

In California, vaccine exemptions have increased from 1.5 percent in 2007 to 3.1 percent in 2013, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times.

That’s a surprisingly large number—but hey, this is California:

Researchers have found that those who refuse vaccines tend to share similarities.

“In general, they’re upper-middle to upper class, well-educated — often graduate school-educated — and in jobs in which they exercise some level of control,” Offit said. “They believe that they can google the word vaccine and know as much, if not more, as anyone who’s giving them advice.”

An enormous amount of damage was also done by fraudulent science in the guise of an influential 1998 article in Lancet claiming a link between vaccines and autism, that has since been proven to be a fraud and retracted. But the study’s author, Andrew Wakefield, couldn’t have done it alone:

But it couldn’t have been done without a willing and for the most part scientifically ignorant public, clamoring for easy answers to medical mysteries. In an editorial in BMJ, editor Fiona Godlee writes that the furor against vaccines continues to be “fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession…”

Measles is a serious disease. It is very serious in populations that have not been exposed to it—just ask the Hawaiians, or what’s left of them. Measles is more commonly a relatively mild disease contracted in childhood, but one that in a significant minority of cases has very severe repercussions that can include encephalitis (see this for more details on why doctors are very concerned about measles outbreaks).

But many people cling to the notion that it is vaccinations that are the greater danger, and they will not be dissuaded by mere facts. I wrote about the anti-vaccination phenomenon in 2008, and I’m sorry to say the problem is still as current as ever (see also Part II of the article, here).

I will add that I have a dog in this race: personal experience. When I was young, virtually every child got measles as a rite of passage, along with mumps and chicken pox, and often German measles too. There were no vaccines for any of them. But it’s not primarily my own experience of having measles—which I remember only vaguely (I was around two or three)—that made the deepest impression. What was far more searing was the fact that, when I was two, my only cousin (age 6) had measles encephalitis and was so severely brain-damaged from it that he had to learn to walk and talk all over again.

He never quite made it back all the way, either; I remember him well after that. He remained partly paralyzed, walked with a strange gait, could not use one of his arms, had a great deal of emotional liability, and was subject to frequent seizures. When I was six he died of complications of the disease.

That is the sort of thing a child is unlikely to forget. Let’s hope it’s the sort of thing parents today won’t have to experience in order to protect their children against it.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]