It’s a good bet that increasing numbers of the children who are flocking into North Carolina’s schools this week lack the vaccinations that could protect them from childhood diseases.

The numbers won’t be crunched for a few months, but officials fear that the disturbing trend of the last few years will continue. The percentage of children who have not been vaccinated is rising, despite the efforts of public health and school officials and despite reams of evidence from medical professionals showing that vaccinations are safe and effective.

Exemptions to the law are allowed for two reasons: medical and religious. Medical exemptions require documentation that the child has an allergy or some other condition that makes vaccination unsafe. Only about 1 in 1,000 children have a medical exemption.

The alarming increase is in the exemptions for religious reasons. All parents need to do to obtain a religious exemption is write a statement of their religious objections.

Last year, about 1 out of 300 North Carolina students were granted such exemptions.

We’ve already seen what can happen. Buncombe County, with the highest rate of parents requesting religious exemptions, had the largest outbreak of chickenpox in North Carolina since that vaccine became available. Buncombe County also had an outbreak of pertussis, called whooping cough in the bad old days when it was sometimes fatal to infants.

Officials consider the vaccines that prevent many childhood diseases to be one of the greatest public health success stories of recent decades.

These diseases are not to be taken lightly. Measles used to kill children and leave others blind or with neurological problems. Chickenpox can necessitate amputations, cause shingles later in life, and even kill infants and people with weakened immune systems. The list goes on.

Why would parents deliberately not take advantage of vaccines to prevent these diseases? Sincere religious beliefs probably figure in a few cases, but it’s likely that junk science, conspiracy theories and social media play a much bigger role.

Many of the so-called anti-vaxxers have bought in to the misinformation campaign started by the thoroughly discredited research of Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician who in 1998 published a “study” in The Lancet, a medical journal, claiming a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — often simply called MMR — and autism. The Lancet later retracted the “study” as false, and Wakefield lost his medical license. But the myths keep circulating, despite extensive new research showing there is no link and that the MMR vaccination saves lives.

Some parents selfishly decide not to have their children vaccinated, believing that since most others are vaccinated, their children will be safe. That’s a false assumption, as the outbreaks in Asheville prove.

The very success of vaccinations makes some parents think they aren’t necessary. Today’s parents grew up without experiencing those diseases or having known friends who died or were permanently damaged by them. They don’t see the diseases as a real threat, despite what public health officials try to tell us.

But skipped vaccinations endanger not just their own children but also others — infants, pregnant women and those who legitimately can’t take vaccines.

State officials should strengthen the sensible laws that require vaccinations for children to attend any school, whether public, charter or private.

Today’s children face enough dangers; why add an easily preventable disease to the list?

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