Late last week, I mentioned that a major measles outbreak has been traced to Disney’s theme parks in Anaheim. Well, as of yesterday, a total of 42 measles cases in California have been linked to initial exposure at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park. According to California health officials, an additional eight cases outside of California have been linked to Disneyland. The most outrageous part is that this was completely preventable. By one estimate, more than 82 percent of those affected by this outbreak have not been vaccinated. Granted, that figure is a little high, since it includes a number of kids who are too young to be vaccinated and rely on herd immunity for protection from this disease. Nonetheless, it can be said beyond all doubt that the majority of those affected by this outbreak have absolutely no excuse.
This outbreak has shone a well-deserved spotlight on the anti-vaccine movement, for which California is one of the fountainheads. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 3.1 percent of California kindergartners are exempt from the vaccination requirement. But CDC officials say that you have to put a huge asterisk by that figure. There are several pockets where the exemption rate is at or near double digits. According to the CDC, a community has to be 95 percent vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks. Small wonder that James Cherry, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at UCLA, says that this outbreak is “100 percent connected” to anti-vaxxer claptrap.
Rory Carroll of The Guardian recently traveled to one of those pockets. He found several wealthy school districts in Orange County with very high exemption rates. In Capistrano Unified School District, for instance, 9.5 percent of kindergartners have exemptions on file. It’s even more staggering at the individual school level. More than 150 schools in California–all in well-off districts–have exemption rates of eight percent or more for at least one vaccine.
According to Matt Zahn, a vaccination expert at the Orange County Health Agency, there are a number of factors at play. He blames “a grab-bag” of pseudoscientific nonsense. For instance, many people still believe the MMR (mumps/measles/rubella) vaccine can cause autism–even after a 1998 study peddling this claim was exposed as unethical and fraudulent. However, Zahn thinks there’s another factor at play–since many of these kids’ parents have never experienced measles, they’re “riding on the immunization rates in (their) community.” But this is bad math–when too many parents opt out, the system will start showing cracks. And those cracks may already be starting to form. Last year, the CDC reported 644 measles cases–three times the typical number, and easily the most in two decades. Paul Offit, the chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, puts it bluntly–“we’ll start seeing deaths” if the number of measles cases gets into four digits.
Orange County health officials have sent letters to parents saying that students who can’t prove they’ve had a measles shot can be banned from going to school. In one high school alone, 20 students have been sent home. Another school in Huntington Beach has told students that unless they can prove they’ve been vaccinated for measles, they should stay home until January 29. All of this has me wondering–are personal exemptions from vaccinations really a good idea? It seems that these exemptions merely give credence to pseudoscience. There has to be something that can be done that doesn’t veer into “Big Brother” territory. However, the status quo is simply not acceptable.