Many “anti-vax” parents see themselves as experts on their own children; as best able to decide what their children need and whether their child needs a particular vaccine; and better qualified than health experts or public health agencies to decide what is best for their family.

These decisions are inarguable not in the best interests of the community and indisputably increase risk to others; who may be the most vulnerable to the worst outcomes of infection. And although no one can predict how someone will respond to measles infection; children under age five and adults over 20 are most likely to suffer the most serious complications.

The parents who choose to reject vaccines introduce risk to many, including their own children and others. This makes it easy for many people to see them with contempt. Yet, their decisions also provide an opportunity for all of us to consider; how we all may make choices that align with our own goals; but risk the health, and lives, of those in our communities.

Exhibit A: Flu shots

“I totally believe in vaccines. I just do not get flu shots.” I hear statements like this all the time from people; who consider themselves committed to vaccines and public health. Their statement is not surprising since fewer than 45% of Americans; and fewer than 37% of adults 18-64 without a high-risk health condition; get a flu shot despite recommendations that almost everyone over six months of age should.

Influenza causes more deaths than any other vaccine-preventable disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the 2018-2019 season, between 36,400 and 61,200 people died from influenza; of which 109 were children. The same people who question the motives of parents who reject vaccines often confidently tell me why they didn’t get a flu shot this year, even as they understand that flu can kill. They insist they do not need it. But they contend they are healthy.

They have good nutrition. But they can handle infection should they become sick. They would not be one of the 500,000-600,000 people hospitalized this year for influenza-related illness. Some say that the vaccine does not always work anyway, so why bother. These reasons for rejecting a flu vaccine are the exact same reasons parents offer for why they reject vaccines for their children. After all, they insist, their children would not be the ones devastated by infection. They are healthy. But they eat well. They do not need those vaccines, either.

Exhibit B: Antibiotics

Beyond vaccines, it turns out many of us are actively contributing to a different kind of public health nightmare: antibiotic resistance. The CDC estimates that each year at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 people die as a result. One of the major causes is unnecessary antibiotic use. One study suggests that at least 30% and as many as 50% of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily.

So why do so many of us jeopardize community health and place others at risk by taking medications that probably won’t help us anyway? Often, those affected by a cold, sore throat, ear infection, cough or bronchitis feel frustrated that their symptoms are interfering with daily life and making them miserable. Surely, there must be some chance an antibiotic will help, the thinking seems to go, so why not try?

Room for improvement

There are many ways to support community health and ways we could all do better. For example, monitoring of air quality outside of schools shows elevated levels of benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and toxins during the hour coinciding with parents picking up their children.

All parents who aim to support children in their community, including those who condemn vaccine hesitance, could protect children’s lungs and reduce children’s risk of developing asthma, respiratory problems and other adverse health effects in one simple way: Turn off your engine in front of schools.