With the Ebola crisis slowly beginning to fade from our global threat chart, a new disease has popped up in its place to cause fear and panic. Only it's not new, in fact it's really old and we kind of thought we'd kicked it here in the U.S.
At press time there were at least 102 cases of measles in 14 states, most, if not all of which are believed to be tied to an outbreak that began at Disneyland in California in mid-December. Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease that's caused by a virus spread in the air with symptoms including: fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and a sore throat, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
It was considered eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, and since then the CDC said it's only topped 100 cases five times.
There were more than 200 cases in 2011 and 644 in 2014. Why? Well, that's where it starts to get tricky.
To Vaccinate Or Not To Vaccinate?
Over the past few years, a number of parents have decided to either not vaccinate their children against common childhood diseases, or to delay vaccinations for a variety of reasons, from fears that they might cause autism (which have been discounted by most medical professionals) to an ignorance over the concept of "herd immunity," according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor.
Mark Largent, a historian at Michigan State University in East Lansing and author of "Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America," said the reason is often not that they are "anti-vaccine," but rather "vaccine-anxious." But to increase herd immunity --- which is what happens when the presence of a large group of vaccinated people basically provides a kind of protection to individuals who aren't; it requires a 92 percent vaccination rate -- doctors must convince those parents that they should inoculate their children.
Public health officials, however, are pretty clear on the answer: Vaccinations are the reason we have all but wiped out such formerly common diseases as polio, whooping cough, chicken pox and, yes, measles. According to the CDC, the "majority" of the people who got measles in those 102 reported cases were not vaccinated. The source of the infection is believed to be a visitor from overseas. (Measles is still common in Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa.)
Who Can You Trust?
Whatever the reason, part of the problem with the latest outbreak is that some of our leaders are sending confusing, often contradictory messages.
President Obama was unequivocal in supporting the use of vaccines over the weekend. "Get your kids vaccinated," he said, while expected 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton seconded that emotion on Monday. "The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork," she tweeted.
But things go a bit cloudier this week when likely Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appeared to say it's up to parents, and then reversed himself.
Christie said he understood that "parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well" and "there has to be a balance." But after getting serious blowback, Christie seemed to change his mind, with his office issuing a clarification: "the Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated."
Another Republican presidential hopeful, Senator (and physician) Rand Paul, was not so sure.
"While I think it’s a good idea to take the vaccine, I think that’s a personal decision for individuals," he told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham. While he was annoyed by doctors who told him to vaccinate his own children, Paul said he eventually relented, spacing out the shots over a period of time.
What Do You Think?
The debate has clearly divided people, with some blaming non-vaccinators for needlessly spreading a disease and people who chose not to vaccinate arguing that it is their choice what chemicals are put into their children's bodies.
Do You Have To Get Vaccinated?
According to the Monitor, all states allow for medical exemptions to vaccines and all but West Virginia and Mississippi allow for religious exemptions. About 20 states also allow for a "personal belief" exemption, and many pro-vaccine voices are reportedly turning their anger at those clusters of non-vaccinators, which can be found in places like Marin or Orange County in California and Boulder, Colorado.
The questioners in those communities tend to be educated and well-off, as well as focused on a natural lifestyle that questions mainstream medicine and the large pharmaceutical companies that typically manufacture vaccines. Others include Amish communities, some Orthodox communities in New York and Christian Scientists.
Some who delay or customize the schedule of vaccination point to higher rates of autoimmune and attention-deficit disorders in young people and the clustering of the typically three dozen shots most children are required to get by age six.