Short-term pain, long-term protection. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg
Short-term pain, long-term protection. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg

Having spent several years working in the vaccine field, I've been curious to see how Princeton University would cope with an outbreak of meningitis B, a strain that isn't covered by the vaccine given to U.S. adolescents. After seven students fell ill, the Food and Drug Administration allowed a European Union-approved vaccine to be imported to stop the contagion.

But would the students take it? They have come of age at a time when it has become popular, among a subset of prosperous and educated Americans, to reject vaccination as unnecessary and even harmful. Despite a thorough debunking of claims that vaccines cause autism, bogus theories about the dangers of vaccines persist.

The Princeton kids aren't listening, apparently. Ninety-one percent of those for whom the vaccine was recommended -- undergraduates, graduate students living in dorms, and students and staff with certain health conditions -- showed up to receive the first of two doses.

This turnout suggests that when young people can decide for themselves, they opt for vaccination. When parents are in charge, just 74 percent of U.S. teenagers get the ordinary meningitis vaccine. Only 54 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys receive even the first of three doses of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which prevents cancer of the cervix and perhaps the penis and the throat.

Of course, the Princeton cohort was motivated by the present danger of bacterial meningitis, which can cause brain damage and even death. Parents who deny their children vaccines tend not to think they are putting their kids or anyone else at risk of anything so real. They are mistaken. Geographic clusters of parents refusing to have their kids vaccinated against pertussis have contributed to a comeback for whooping cough.

There were 48,277 cases of pertussis last year, the highest level in the U.S. since 1955. And while the numbers are down in most states, they continue to rise in 13. The vulnerable include not just children whose parents have decided against inoculation, but also those who for medical reasons can't be vaccinated, those for whom the vaccine doesn't work (no vaccine is 100 percent effective), and infants too young to be vaccinated. Pertussis killed 18 people last year, most of them babies not yet three months old.

Like meningitis at Princeton, pertussis poses a present danger in many communities, as will more preventable infectious diseases if the vaccine denial trend isn't reversed. The parents who are responsible for it ought to listen to the students at Princeton: Vaccination is the only good option.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)