Image: AP

Washington state is in the middle of a frightening measles outbreak: There are currently at least 55 confirmed cases in the state, according to a report from the Washington Post published Thursday. Almost all of them, so far, have been in Clark County, where public health officials have reported 50 confirmed cases and 11 suspected ones and where nearly one in four kids attend school without having received their measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.

Measles is “exquisitely contagious,” the head of Clark County Public Health told the Post, and can spread “like a wildfire” in under-vaccinated communities. The outbreak in Clark County has meant that parents with newborn babies—like Amber Gorrow, whose eight-week-old son is too young to receive the measles shot—are reconsidering basic things like going outside, running errands, and letting their children have playdates.

Gorrow says the issue has parents divided, even when it’s not talked about:

“I hate to say it but I’m even nervous about having people over — especially people who have small children and I’m not sure where they stand” on vaccinations, said Gorrow, 29, who had her older child vaccinated.

Anti-vaxx pseudoscience been repeatedly discredited, retracted, and called an “elaborate fraud”—but the anti-vaxx movement lives on. Broadly speaking, as the Post points out, anti-vaxxers believe that the risk of catching a disease like measles—which Americans incorrectly think of as living in the past—is less than the risk associated getting the MMR vaccine. The irony is, of course, that measles was considered eliminated in the U.S. some 20 years ago because of the widespread use of vaccines.

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Parents who refused to vaccinate their children and then changed their minds have offered insight into the anti-vaxxer’s reality-denying mental calculus, and how their thinking can be self-reinforcing despite mountains of medical evidence debunking their claims:

Martina Clements, 41, a Portland mom who didn’t vaccinate her two children until recently, said the anti-vaccine community uses fear to raise doubts about vaccine safety. But parents who support immunizations can be belittling.

“On one side, they make you afraid, and the other side they make you feel stupid, and you get stuck in this middle where you feel beat up by both sides,” she said.

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Clements says she came around on vaccines after a doctor listened to and answered her questions for more than two hours; she remarked that, through all his detailed explanations, he remained “still very warm.” 

Even that kind of warmth may do little good. In a piece for the New York Review of Books reflecting on her conversations with parents who refuse Vitamin K shots (which are typically given within an hour of birth to help babies’ blood clot) for their newborn children, physician Rachel Pearson writes: “These parents see a vulnerability similar to the one that I see in their children, but in their minds the threats come from society.”

More from Pearson:

The boy who has not had the Vitamin K shot is warm, swaddled, breathing quietly. His heartbeat is regular and his normal newborn’s heart murmur has faded. He is holy; he is perfect. And it is shocking to realize the narrative place my medicines hold in this mother’s cosmos. To her, my shot and I are pollutants. We are the bitter Samaritans, strewing bones through the temple in Jerusalem.

But I am not bitter at my core. I want him to get Vitamin K for practical reasons: so he can stay home safe, in his mother’s arms, with no critical need for my medicines and me. I don’t want him to bleed into his brain. I don’t want neurosurgeons to slice through his skull to relieve the pressure. I don’t want him on a breathing tube in our ICU. The vitamin is preventive, a charm to ward me off.

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As Pearson writes, that mother left without allowing her child to get the shot.