Grand Forks Public Heath Department employee Carolyn Kaltenberg fills a syringe before administering a vaccination. Grand Forks Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

I was purposefully provocative in my Sunday newspaper column this week, headlined “Vaccinate your children, you idiots.”

Was it perhaps a little insulting? Sure. I did call vaccination opponents “gullible, conspiracy-addled boobs,” but I think that’s largely an accurate description. And while I wouldn’t normally be so judgmental, being generally in favor of allowing people to live their lives in whatever silly ways they wish, I think this anti-vaccination nonsense is moving our place to a precarious position.

The genesis of my column was this article from Forum News Service reporter Sam Easter which detailed North Dakota’s falling vaccination rates. From 2000 to present, the number of kindergarten and first grade students with their DTaP and MMR vaccinations dropped from over 95 percent to about 88 percent.

“It’s not a crisis, but it’s definitely something we should be paying attention to,” Dr. Paul Carson, a professor in North Dakota State University’s Department of Public Health, told Easter.

I suspect Dr. Carson was trying to be diplomatic. I look at the drop in the number of children getting vaccinations and alarm bells go off.

In North Dakota it is very easy to get an exemption from vaccination requirements. All you need to do is submit a form declaring vaccinations to be against your religious or philosophical beliefs (you can also opt out for medical reasons).

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]From 2000 to present, the number of kindergarten and first grade students with their DTaP and MMR vaccinations dropped from over 95 percent to about 88 percent.[/mks_pullquote]

This easy exemption was created by the state in 2000. It’s notable that the number of vaccinations for kids has dropped so much since then.

Most of the negative reactions to my column demanded to know why I should care about health care choices which have no impact on me. After all, if I and my family are vaccinated, we’re safe. Right?

But this speaks to a not uncommon level of ignorance about vaccinations.

For one thing, they’re not a silver bullet. Vaccines lower the risk of getting a particular disease, but they do not prevent it entirely. A greater protection comes from the oft-cited “herd immunity” where so many people are vaccinated that outbreaks of a disease become rare and isolated. But if fewer people are vaccinated the herd immunity is diminished and we’re all at greater risk of serious illness whether we’re vaccinated or not.

For another, many people have medical conditions which preclude them from getting vaccinated. Certain allergies or immune disorders can make it dangerous for those afflicted with those things to get a vaccination. Also, a vaccination’s effectiveness diminishes over time, and new vaccinations at advanced ages can be risky, so often the elderly are susceptible even to diseases they were vaccinated against earlier in life.

Granted, these people may represent a small percentage of the overall American population, but even a small percentage of the population is still millions and millions of people.

We’re willing to put millions of people at risk – those who are elderly, those with medical conditions leaving them susceptible to diseases – over anti-vaccination conspiracy theories?

As a fairly libertarian-minded person the idea of forced vaccinations gives me the hives. I don’t like it. But if this trend away from vaccinations continues, better a public health policy I’m distinctly uncomfortable with than renewed human suffering from outbreaks of perfectly preventable communicable diseases.

I would rather people choose to do the right thing, but I’m not going to stand by and let humanity suffer because of an outbreak of anti-vaccination stupidity.