Measles Outbreak Casts Spotlight on Anti-Vaccine Movement

A major measles outbreak traced to Disneyland has brought criticism down on the small but vocal movement among parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children.

In a rash of cases that public health officials are rushing to contain, at least 70 people in six states and Mexico have fallen ill since mid-December, most of them from California. The vast majority of those who got sick had not gotten the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine.

While still a scourge in many corners of the world, measles has been all but eradicated in the U.S. since 2000 because of vaccinations. But the virus has made a comeback in recent years, in part because of people obtaining personal belief exemptions from rules that say children must get their shots to enroll in school.

Others have delayed getting their children vaccinated because they still believe now-discredited research linking the measles vaccine to autism.

"What's left for us is to continue to get the message out there that these vaccines are safe and there are steep consequences to not immunizing their children and we wouldn't recommend them if they weren't important," Dr. Daniel Adams, Pediatrician at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia, told NBC 4 on Friday.

Barbara Loe Fisher, director of the National Vaccine Information Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that favors letting parents decide whether to vaccinate, said, "I don't think it's wise or responsible to blame" unvaccinated people for the Disney outbreak. She noted that a small number of those stricken had been fully vaccinated.

While there have been no confirmed cases in the Washington, D.C., area during the recent outbreak, parents expressed concerns about the spike.

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"I think everyone should have their measles vaccine," Teri Deal, a mother of a 9-year old daughter told News 4. "There's been so much false information about vaccines, but I also think there's also a lot of good information and people just need to get informed."

Kyle Durbin said she had her two children, who are now 10 and 6, vaccinated despite hearing anti-vaccine arguments. She said her doctor explained the benefits of MMR to her.

"I vaccinated both of my children," Durbin said. "I think it's something you need to do to protect the other people around you who aren't protected: the babies, the pregnant mothers. It's the responsible thing to do."

Health authorities believe the outbreak was triggered by a measles-stricken visitor to one of the Disney parks who brought the virus from abroad last month.

As one of the world's biggest tourist destinations, Disney was a perfect spot for the virus to spread, with large numbers of babies too young to be vaccinated and lots of visitors from countries that do not require measles shots. The disease has since spread beyond Disneyland.

The infected ranged from 7 months to 70 years old, including five Disneyland workers.

"It's tragic to see measles making a resurgence," said Deanne Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency. "When our immunity falls, it creates a problem for the whole community."

Dr. Adams recommended that children be vaccinated before traveling abroad as well.

"There is endemic spread of this virus all throughout the world, so we recommend children under the age of 1 year -- older than 6 months-- should have a dose of MMR before they travel overseas. Now that doesn't count toward the full series. When they get back and turn 1 they should get another MMR and again before kindergarten to get fully protected."

While all states require certain vaccinations for schoolchildren, parents in certain states such as California can opt out if they sign a personal belief waiver.

In the past five years, the percentage of kindergartners in California who are up to date on all vaccinations has held pretty steady from 90.7 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 90.4 percent in 2014-15. But there are some wealthy communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties and in Northern California with double-digit vaccination exemption rates.

To control this latest outbreak, those who are not vaccinated were warned this week to stay away from Disney theme parks. Disney employees who have no proof of immunization and may have come into contact with sick colleagues were placed on paid leave until they are given the medical all-clear.

At Huntington Beach High School in Orange County, two dozen unvaccinated students were ordered home until the three-week incubation period is up.

More than 30 babies in Northern California's Alameda County have been placed in home isolation after possible exposure.

"I'm terribly upset that someone has made a choice that not only affects their child but other people's children," said Jennifer Simon, whose 6-month-old daughter, Livia, was isolated after it was learned she may have been exposed to measles during a visit to the doctor's office.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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