In less than two weeks, the number of cases linked to an outbreak of measles that originated at a Disneyland theme park has topped 70. People have gotten sick in California, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Mexico. Health officials are urging unvaccinated people to stay away from Disneyland, and some schools in California are attempting to stem the spread of the disease by sending kids home if they haven’t had their recommended shots. More than 30 babies in Northern California have been placed in isolation after possibly being exposed.
The worsening outbreak has renewed a contentious debate over the issue of childhood vaccination, putting a spotlight back on the parents who choose to forgo the shots that the government recommends for all school age children. Across the country, health experts are saying they hope the current spread of measles will help serve as a “wake-up call” about the real risks of infectious diseases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers measles to be “the most deadly of all childhood rash/fever illnesses.” It’s one of the most contagious diseases out there — spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which means that just one person with measles can potentially put thousands of others at risk. It can be particularly dangerous for babies, who can suffer from lung infections or even lifelong brain damage in some cases.
Many Americans may not know much about measles, particularly since it’s become relatively rare here in recent years. Thanks to the development of the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), the disease was virtually eradicated in the U.S. back in 2000. Experts say that may be part of the problem. Some parents might be skipping out on the MMR shot because they aren’t familiar with the infection and don’t think of it as a serious threat.
“The older people who remember measles as ‘just a rash’ were the ones who didn’t have a sibling who died from it or haven’t seen the horrors in a children’s hospital that I’ve seen,” Patricia Stinchfield, the director of the Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, recently told the New York Times. “I hope this outbreak serves as an American wake-up call.”
California’s Disneyland is a particularly problematic place for a measles outbreak to originate because the theme park draws thousands of people from all over the country, who may then return home and spread the disease in other states. Plus, to make matters worse, the state has recently seen an uptick in the number of kids who are skipping out on their recommended vaccines.
All states allow parents to seek exemptions for their kids’ recommended vaccines for medical reasons or religious objections. But some states — including California — also provide a more generous loophole for “philosophical objections.” These type of broader exemptions have been directly linked to disease outbreaks, since they have allowed an increasing number of people to opt out of shots based on unscientific assumptions that the childhood vaccination schedule isn’t safe. This dynamic is on full display in California. Wealthy schools in the Los Angeles area, for instance, have particularly low vaccination rates that have sparked concerns among health experts.
Dr. Paul Offit, a physician who directs the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told HealthDay that the current outbreak is occurring because “a critical number of people are choosing not to vaccinate their children.”
Across the country, federal health officials have tracked a rise in the number of measles cases that they say are directly linked to fewer people getting the MMR shot. Recent studies have found that unvaccinated people tend to cluster together in the same community, which allows contagious diseases to spread. It’s not hard to see how that’s creating a public health issue of national concern. As illustrated by this chart via the Washington Post, measles cases have skyrocketed more than a decade after health experts first celebrated the disease’s eradication:
“We can expect to see many more cases of this preventable disease unless people take measures to prevent it,” Dr. Gilberto F. Chávez, the deputy director of the California Center for Infectious Diseases, told the New York Times. “I am asking unvaccinated Californians to consider getting vaccinated against measles.”
But Offit suggests the situation may have to get worse before it gets better. “If a child died of measles in southern California, I think people would start vaccinating,” he said. “I think it will take more suffering and more hospitalizations and more deaths to not see these outbreaks. We’re compelled by fear, and we don’t fear this disease enough.”